Reporter Anna Madrzyk set it up perfectly:
"Jenny Youngwith plays baseball, rides a bike and practices ballet - all with her service dog Simba at her side, toting two small oxygen tanks," she wrote in Wednesday's editions, "The 17-year-old high school senior loves basketball most of all."
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But Jenny, who has a respiratory condition, was denied a spot on the Special Olympics basketball team, a year-old program at West Chicago's Community High School. And now there's a lawsuit.
Plenty of misery to go around on this one.
Jenny, who has other disabilities, can't understand why she was allowed to play basketball in gym class but not with her friends in Special Olympics. She's extremely distraught and is experiencing migraines, her mother says.
Because of the precarious financial condition most schools face, District 94 is worried about the cost of defending the lawsuit, which could wipe out the almost-new program. It's particularly unsettling to school board President Kathleen Doremus, who has a daughter with Down syndrome who played last year. For her and the other kids, it was "an amazing experience," Doremus told Madrzyk.
A few thoughts:
• Is there a soul out there who doesn't think there's too much litigation in the world?
• I'm not an expert on Special Olympics, but isn't it supposed to be all-inclusive, or as close to it as possible, to give an opportunity to kids who might not otherwise have a chance to play? Yes, in our sue-happy society, there might be some safety concerns influencing the decision.
• Things are never as simple as they seem, and I presume there were some negotiations prior to the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Jenny by Equip for Equality, a legal advocacy group. But is this not a situation in which perhaps all parties could sit down and come to some type of compromise?
The Youngwiths say they've tried to meet Special Olympics halfway: They'd put Simba on the bench and let Jenny play with one small oxygen tank in a padded backpack. The Carol Stream family also says they have letters of support from doctors, physical therapists, a service dog group, an oxygen company and parents of other kids with disabilities.
We're less certain of the Special Olympics objections. When contacted by Madrzyk earlier in the week, the group had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. (Just a quick aside: I do not think Special Olympics is being furtive or evasive; it's SOP not to talk about a lawsuit one hasn't seen. In fact, as unfortunate as it is for us in the newsgathering business, it's often prudent for one to keep one's yap shut until the matter goes to court.)
Instead, we received a statement from Doug Snyder, president and CEO of Special Olympics Illinois. He said the group could not comment on the specifics of the Youngwith case. He mentioned the mission and philosophy of Special Olympics and the accommodations it tries to make for its athletes. Snyder also noted Special Olympics abides by its rules and the National Federation of State High School Associations. "Our sporting events can be as intense, physical and competitive as any other basketball games held under those rules," he said, perhaps intimating the perils of a dog or oxygen tanks on the court.
Here's some good news: As this is written, we have word attorneys for both sides may huddle soon.
Let's hope someone locks the door until an agreement is reached.