Students with disabilities sue PIAA to participate in state track championships

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

Two high school students with physical disabilities are suing the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to allow them and others in similar circumstances to compete at the state championships next year.

Alex Brown, a 15-year-old at North Catholic High School in Cranberry, and Trent Clayton, an 18-year-old from West Chester, Pa., filed the complaint Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh to force the PIAA to let them compete in 2022.

The suit is seeking class action status and asks a judge to declare the PIAA in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and issue an injunction requiring the organization to let para athletes participate.

As is stands now, the PIAA requires its member schools to accommodate some para athletes during the regular season.

But there's no process for them to qualify and compete in the end-of-season track and field championships, according to the suit.

"That's because, according to PIAA, '[t]rack and field events administered by PIAA are intended for participation by able-bodied athletes' only," says the lawsuit, filed by Pittsburgh attorney Kevin Tucker.

The PIAA says it is not equipped to offer the range of competitive opportunities required, according to the lawsuit, but the complaint says many other states' associations maintain a wheelchair division for track and field. Other states also have a division for para-ambulatory athletes who don't use wheelchairs.

The suit says that by failing to offer similar competitions, students such as Alex and Trent are denied the "values of competition/participation and performance" that PIAA says should be made available at every opportunity.

Alex Brown, a sophomore at North Catholic, suffered a spinal injury when he was 4 and uses a wheelchair to compete in sports. He's been competing in track and field since he was 10 and as a freshman this year competed in the 100-meter run and the shot put. He earned a varsity letter in track by competing at meets in 2021 and in the WPIAL team championships, according to the suit.

The PIAA has individual championships, but does not have team championships

Trent Clayton has cerebral cavernoma, an abnormality of the nervous system that limits his ability to walk, lift and bend.

Since 2018, he has competed in the discus and shot put at West Chester East High School.

By not allowing para athletes to perform, the PIAA is denying them the chance to share in their teammates' goal of qualifying for the state championships, earning points for their school and meeting other athletes from across the state, the complaint says.

"As a result of being denied these opportunities, Alex and Trent cannot help feeling deterred from concentrating in and committing to track and field events, like the 100 meters, shot put, and discus," the suit states. "Instead, Alex and Trent are more likely to focus on other sports and activities, like sled hockey, tennis, or video games, that are unaffiliated with PIAA, their classmates, friends, coaches, mentors, and schools."