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A learning-disabled student who was barred from playing high school sports because he is 19 years old has lost his bid for a federal injunction that would have allowed him to play in a Thanksgiving Day football game against his school’s arch-rival. Joining Luis Cruz as a co-plaintiff in the suit was the Ridley School District, which alleged that the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association was violating Cruz’s rights under three different federal laws by strictly enforcing its age rule. But U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter said that an injunction is an “extreme” remedy and that Ridley and Cruz had not proven that there will be any “irreparable harm” if he is barred from competitive play. Buckwalter said he himself often “warmed the bench” while a member of a high school football team and that he still got a lot out of the experience. Since Cruz can still practice with the team and suit up for games, Buckwalter said he could not see any “irreparable” harm. Attorney Arthur Levy argued that Cruz’s advanced age as a high-school senior is a direct result of his learning disabilities but that he was not violating PIAA’s rule that bars playing in more than eight semesters. And Cruz would not give Ridley High School an unfair competitive advantage, Levy said, since he is just 5-foot-2 and 135 pounds and is not a star player in any of the sports he plays. Levy argued that PIAA’s age rule should bend in Cruz’s case since a federal law — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — protects his right to participate in extracurricular activities. Under IDEA, all disabled students have an IEP or “individualized education plan.” In Cruz’s case, the suit says, his IEP specifically mentions that he should participate in sports because he “has become friends with many of the team players” and sports fulfill “his need for socialization.” Levy also brought claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In an injunction hearing on Wednesday, Levy called several coaches from Ridley High School to the stand, as well as the school’s athletic director and director of special education. Kim Woods, the special education director, said Cruz’s IEP includes sports because the experience of being on a team offers numerous opportunities for learning skills that he will need when he joins the workforce, such as observing a schedule, interacting with peers and taking direction from adults. But PIAA’s lawyer, Jeffrey F. Champagne of McNees Wallace & Nurick in Harrisburg, Pa., argued that it would be impossible to grant exceptions to the age rule since it would require extensive investigations into whether the older student would give his team an unfair advantage. Such an investigation, Champagne said, would have to look at the abilities of all the students on the older player’s team as well as the abilities of all the students they are likely to compete against. Throughout the four-hour hearing, Judge Buckwalter kept pressing witnesses about whether Cruz would be able to participate in sports on some level even if the PIAA age rule bars him from competitive play. In the end, Buckwalter said he found that Cruz’s teachers and coaches will still be able to implement his IEP even though he can no longer compete. The wrestling team, he said, competes in non-PIAA freestyle meets that Cruz can join, and Cruz can run with the track team during practices and as an “exhibition” runner at meets. Buckwalter also said Ridley could allow Cruz to play in the Thanksgiving game and simply allow the PIAA to declare the game a forfeit afterwards. To the players, the win happens on the field, the judge said, and they probably wouldn’t be bothered by a technical forfeit. In his closing argument, Levy said Cruz was being denied a “free and appropriate public education.” But Buckwalter cut him off, saying, “He’s not being deprived of anything he’s entitled to.” Buckwalter insisted that Levy explain how Cruz would be irreparably harmed if he were limited to practicing but not competing. Levy said there was a significant difference in the self-esteem that a player gets from actually playing in an official game. But Buckwalter, remembering his own bench-warming days, said, “There’s a difference, but there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to get that. How does that harm a person? I mean, it’s a disappointment, but …” Levy pressed his point, saying Cruz’s IEP clearly says he should “participate” in sports — which includes competitions. But Buckwalter said the school’s IEP team must simply meet again to modify the IEP now that an “outside organization,” the PIAA, has imposed an impediment. For now, Buckwalter said, Cruz can still suit up for games and enjoy “the thrill of hearing the crowd cheering and the thrill of being on the bench with his buddies.” After the hearing, Levy said that the case will continue. Winning injunctions is difficult, he said, but Ridley officials are still hopeful that they can win a ruling by early next year that would allow Cruz to compete in spring sports.

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