Two varsity football players for D.C.’s Wilson High School who attend a private school were kicked off the team as the season was about to begin after school officials realized that they had mistakenly allowed the boys to play for two seasons.
Luis Flor and Kasper Tuomala — now juniors at the Lab School, a private school for students with disabilities that doesn’t have a football team — signed up for the Wilson squad during freshman year, something other students at their school had done. Football quickly became a highlight of their high school experience.
“We really, really, really love playing football for Wilson,” said Luis, 16. “We know there’s a possibility we could never play high school football again.”
The school notified the boys’ families a few days into preseason practices that because the families pay the private school tuition, the students are not eligible to play on D.C. public school teams.
Students with disabilities can be sent to private schools at taxpayer expense when the public system cannot offer a “free and appropriate public education,” as required by federal law. And if the city were footing the bill, as it has done for thousands of special education students, Luis and Kasper would be allowed to remain on the team.
The teens’ parents requested waivers to allow their sons to play, but on Friday — the day the Wilson Tigers opened their season against Good Counsel — the families received a letter from the school system saying that their requests were denied. They planned to watch from the sidelines.
John Davis, chief of schools, wrote in the letter that D.C. Public Schools was enforcing its own rule that “only students enrolled in DCPS are eligible to participate in DCPS athletic programs.”
The letter cited “substantial concerns” with allowing the students to play, including “the establishment of an untenable precedent,” potential forfeiture of games, recruiting concerns and liability issues.
Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the public schools, estimated that as many as 20 students who attend private schools participate on city schools’ sports teams. Those students are allowed to play because they are technically considered public school students who receive public funding, she said. They are counted in graduation rates and other accountability measures, and they are covered by the same insurance.
Dana Flor said the only reason her son is in private school is because of his learning disabilities, which include ADHD and an auditory-processing disability. But, as with Kasper’s family, she said they made the decision to go to private school on their own.
The parents said they were happy with the academic experience at private school. But when it came to sports, their sons have loved taking part in a classic public school pastime.
Luis, a safety and cornerback, said that playing at Wilson is “special” because students have to try out and make the team. Kasper, an offensive lineman, agreed: “If you play football for Wilson, it’s like an accomplishment.”
Dana Flor said football has been “a transformative experience” for her son.
“If I could devise a sport that could help my son, it would be football,” she said. It’s about “studying plays, following directions and being part of a team,” all helpful experiences for a student such as her son, she said.
D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) has advocated for the teens to play. She said in an e-mail Friday that she was “baffled by the wooden and unresponsive DCPS bureaucracy.”
D.C. regulations say public school students at traditional or charter schools may “request authorization” to play a sport at a different school if it’s not offered at their own. The rule does not mention private school students.
Clark Ray, executive director of the D.C. State Athletic Association, said in an e-mail to D.C. officials that he thought it could be permissible for the private school students to play, if the school system approved the request.
The school district’s general counsel disagreed and recommended denying waivers.
An internal DCPS legal memo obtained by The Washington Post cited the potential for public school students to lose their spots on teams, private schools “being used as recruiting grounds” for public school teams and liability concerns if students are injured.
In the two weeks since they were told they could no longer play, Luis and Kasper have attended practices, studying plays in case they were ruled eligible. Luis said he had just made the varsity team this year. Kasper made the varsity as a sophomore.
Kasper’s father said being on the team has boosted his son’s self-esteem.
“It’s really hard for him to read a history book or write an essay on ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ” Jari Tuomala said. “But he goes on the field, he does what the coaches tell him, and he succeeds.”