Warren Township High School in Gurnee plans to launch a coed soccer team for disabled students in less than two months.
Gurnee-based Warren District 121 will join other suburban schools in trying to boost the sports options for students with physical and intellectual disabilities, Athletic Director Mark Pos said.
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Pos said it's hoped at least 18 disabled pupils will be participating when twice-a-week practices begin March 3. Students without disabilities also will be on the team -- some are already working in a leadership capacity with those in adaptive physical education and some are from conventional soccer programs.
"We all feel we are opening a whole new world for our students with disabilities, while creating new and exciting leadership skills for our student leaders," Pos told the Daily Herald on Thursday.
In January 2013, schools across the country received a letter from the federal Office of Civil Rights clarifying obligations regarding students with disabilities in extracurricular athletics. It served as a reminder that school systems must provide equal opportunities for the disabled to participate in sports and not exclude them based on stereotypes and assumptions.
The clarification letter came from a U.S. Government Accountability Office recommendation in a June 2010 report that found access to and participation in extracurricular activities provide important health and social benefits to all students, particularly those with disabilities.
"Unfortunately, the GAO found that students with disabilities are not being afforded an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular athletics in public elementary and secondary schools," the Office of Civil Rights letter said.
Pos said Warren has been providing opportunities and complying with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, but he believes more can be done to get disabled students into school-based athletics. District 121's soccer team will be a joint venture between the athletic and special education departments.
It's hoped Warren's squad will play two matches -- home and away -- against area schools. Pos said now that he briefed the District 121 board about the plan this week, he intends to work with his North Suburban Conference athletic director colleagues in trying to arrange the two games and dates.
Pos said a host of logistics must be worked out before the games, including support staff, nurses and transportation. He said the plan is to have five or six soccer matches in spring 2015.
Superintendent Mary Perry Bates said the soccer team will be a "wonderful opportunity" for disabled students who typically don't get a chance to partake in high school athletics. She said it also is a chance for students to gain a better understanding about the challenges faced by their disabled peers.
"Perhaps more importantly, though, the partner experience helps both the disabled and non-disabled students to know each other as kids and to see that, as kids, they are the same in their desire to play the sport and be part of a team, and that both groups of kids experience the same happiness when the team wins and sadness when the team loses," Bates said.
District 121 plans to use the Allied Sports coed soccer model, which is similar to the Unified Sports program created by Special Olympics in the idea of pairing students with and without disabilities.
Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Naperville has been in the Unified Sports program since 2009. Lincolnshire-based Stevenson High School plans to start its unified disabled coed soccer team in the spring.