Lonnie Van Klei wanted his son to play varsity sports when he transferred to a new high school. He had to hire a lawyer to make it happen.
Van Klei had taken his son out of a Twin Cities high school because he felt it was not meeting his academic needs. The teenager loves to play football, basketball and lacrosse, but the Minnesota State High School League's transfer policy barred him from playing varsity for the first year at his new school in southern Minnesota unless the family moved.
The policy is meant to stop students from transferring in order to gain an athletic advantage. Van Klei and other families in his situation, as well as disability advocates, say that it's wrong to make them fight the league for an exemption for students who transfer because of disability.
"I don't know why this is so difficult. We are talking about high school sports," said Sue Abderholden, the executive director for at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Minnesota chapter. "For many kids that's a way for them to be healthy, and you should be encouraging that. You don't want to set barriers for kids that are already struggling."
David Stead, the league's executive director, would not comment on Van Klei's case but said the league makes decisions based on the documentation provided by the parents and students.
He said switching a student for academic reasons is "not a condition for eligibility, because every school has different opportunities, and there is no way to consistently look at that."
Asked whether a student changing schools because of a learning disability would be given an exemption, Stead said that "if the documentation is there, we make a decision based on that."
"This office does not discriminate against kids that have learning disabilities," he said.
Stead said the schools that make up the league would have to vote to approve a permanent exemption for students with mental health or learning disabilities. He said five schools would first have to propose the exemption.
Dan Stewart, supervising attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center, said in the majority of cases involving students with disabilities, their parents move the student for academic reasons, not for a better football program or more playing time.
"The High School League does not seem to acknowledge the significance or severity of the diagnosis and think it's athletically motivated instead of an academic change," Stewart said.
'Wanted to follow the rules'
Parents were reluctant to talk to Whistleblower for fear they would be ostracized, and school athletic directors and coaches involved in these cases declined to talk about the issue for fear of retribution from the State High School League. Van Klei spoke on condition that his son's name and schools not be identified.
In August, Van Klei and his son started looking for a school that afforded more individual attention. Sports were important, but they weren't looking for an "all-star" football program. When he transferred schools, Van Klei's son went from classrooms with 40 students to as small as eight.
Van Klei said he knew about the league's transfer rule, but he was confident that the league would allow his son to play because they had all the proper documentation that identified his son's needs.
"We approached the process with honesty. We have heard from a lot of families who say, if you want to beat the transfer rule, just rent an apartment and you'll get by, but we wanted to follow the rules and guidelines," Van Klei said.
Van Klei said their initial request was denied, which they expected because the league automatically denies all transfer requests. They filed an appeal, and after four weeks of no response from the league, they hired attorney Andrea Jepsen, with the School Law Center in St. Paul, who is currently representing three other families in similar situations.
Just before the two sides met in a hearing in October, the league relented and said Van Klei's son could play varsity, Jepsen said.
Jepsen said it typically costs her clients $3,000 to $4,000 to challenge the league on the transfer policy. Each of her clients' students already played varsity at their old schools.
Another family, which did not want to be identified, transferred their son to a smaller school in Minneapolis in 2012 after he was found to have attention deficit disorder. The parents had to provide the league with letters from doctors, psychologists and his prescription history.
Jepsen, who has not yet filed any lawsuit against the league, said its policy is a clear violation of the law, which requires organizations like the league to modify their rules to allow a student with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in an activity such as varsity sports.
In another one of Jepsen's cases, a sophomore with neuropsychological disabilities transferred to Achiever Academy in Vadnais Height after he had been struggling at a different school for years. Jepsen said the league has not yet decided in that case, which has been in the appeal process for more than three months. The league, Jepsen said, has taken the position that the student is responsible for his problems.