An Orchard Park High School senior, with autism, has been shut out of eligibility by Section VI to play football this school year. But the teen's family and State Senator Tim Kennedy are appealing to the State Education Commissioner to reverse that decision. WBFO's senior reporter Eileen Buckley says the teen is eager to play with his team this fall.
"I'd really like to play this year and do not want to go all season just sitting there on the sideline and not doing anything and not being able to get out there," said Jacob Kohler.
18-year-old Kohler stood outside the high school football stadium in Orchard Park where the Quakers play. He wore a bright yellow Section VI Football t-shirt. Section VI oversees high school sports in the region. According to the rules, Kohler can't play football because he's about to begin his fifth year at Orchard Park High School. Diagnosed as a child on the autism spectrum.
Kohler had difficulties as a freshman, preventing him from playing sports in 9th grade.
“It literally says I’m eligible for another year, if I didn’t play my first year due to medical absence, which I was and it just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know why they care,” said Kohler.
“He did not anything his freshman year because he was not physically capable of doing it, physically, mentally or I think medically – he just wasn’t able to do it,” said Lisa Kohler, the teen's mother.
Kohler is very upset with the decision that's preventing her son from walking out on the football field when the season opens September 2nd on home turf in Orchard Park.
Kohler insists her son only played sports for three years and has not broken the four -year limit rule.
“We have provided documentation to the school. We have appealed. We have gone through all the appropriate channels,” Kohler mother’s explained.
But Section VI rules state once students enter as a 9th grader, they have four years of participation in sports, whether they play on a team or not.
We reached out to Timm Slade, Executive Director with Section VI in Western New York for comment. He responded back in an email that he was ‘out of town’ for a few days and could not conduct a recorded interview.
Kohler's father, Scott Kohler emailed WBFO about his son's situation. He was out of town when we recorded interviews with his son.
“As a follow-up I would like to add that we are not asking for anything that isn't already provided for in the current state athletic bylaws. The current bylaws state that a player has four years of eligibility from the start of their first day of their freshman year. However, there is a clause that states that if a student requires an additional year of school due to illness or accident beyond their control they are to be granted and additional year of eligibility. This should of course apply to Jacob or any student with a developmental disability similar to autism,” wrote Kohler’s father.
The family received a denial letter from Section VI. They tells us it state 'Jacob was never denied the ability to play as a reason for denial. That requirement does not exist anywhere in their current bylaws.'
"When I asked Timm Slade why they would quote a rule that doesn't exist he stated 'not all rules are in writing', which we were astounded to hear come out of his mouth. This is a clear cut case of discrimination and should never have gotten to the point where an appeal to the education commissioner was necessary," Kohler's father wrote.
“All I know is the law state that he can play four years of a sport and this would be his fourth year and they are not upholding that,” said Kohler mother.
The family learned only at the end of June of his ineligibility. Up until a week ago they weren't allowed to file an appeal. Kohler said they were blocked and shut out, so that’s when they called on Senator Kennedy for assistance.
“This is just another barrier. Unfortunately the State bureaucracy that we are going to have to fight through and cut through, to get him on the football field and I’m very hopeful and optimistic we will do that,” Kennedy stated.
Kennedy wrote a letter to State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to reverse the decision. He cites a similar case that was petitioned in 2013.
“Right here, in Orchard Park, we had the case of David Gorczynski, who was a cross-country runner and the State Athletic Association said his fifth year he was disqualified from playing cross-country and again, it was one of those initiatives that had a direct impact on his, not only on his physical and emotionally well-being, but on his educational success. And we had a positive outcome from that. We were able to get attain a waiver from the state commissioner at the time, and David was allowed to play cross-country in his fifth year,” Kennedy explained.
Kennedy is hoping Commissioner Elia will expedite the matter. Normally, when a petition is made on behalf of a student, it takes up to ten months and the high school football season closes out in November.
“He stood in line with his teammates and was denied equipment and they didn’t tell us,” Kohler mother said.
The family has also reached out to other agencies including the State's Disability Association and other autism associates.
"Even Autistic Services sent an email saying that they exhausted their efforts and they said that this is ‘insidious’ – that was their wording,” Kohler declared.
As for Kohler's autism, he said he has notice major improvements as he has matured.
“Honestly, it really doesn’t affect me that much anymore. As I have gotten older I’ve been able to control it more, just in terms Central Auditory Processing, where I have trouble hearing stuff. I think as I’ve gotten older it has kind of gone away,” Kohler described.
Kohler tells WBFO News his coach has been very understanding and wants him to play. The teen plays wide receiver and he’s very passionate about football. For now, Kohler continues practicing with his team.
“I’ve been able to practice and practice has been going very well for me. All my teammates have been very supportive,” Kohler replied.
“Right now, it doesn’t look like look like he will be allowed to play the first game and we’re really hoping that isn’t the case because he puts his all into it. This is what he wants,” Kohler’s mother responded.