Homeless students’ participation in varsity athletics: Leveling the playing field Public schools in Texas served over 95,000 homeless students in the 2011-2012 school year. In my school district, we are currently serving XX at the high school level.1 We have found that extra-curricular activities are extremely important for students experiencing homelessness. Sports and clubs nurture youth’s self-esteem and teach them critical skills and values such as teamwork, leadership, goal-setting, commitment and respect. Extra-curricular activities, and varsity sports in particular, often open doors to college admission and scholarships. They offer a surrogate family for youth estranged from their parents. For students who lose their housing, extra-curricular activities offer an oasis of stability, predictability and pride in the midst of chaos of homelessness. Unfortunately, homelessness poses many challenges to a student’s ability to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities. One of the most common is related to mobility. As homelessness forces students to move from one temporary living situation to another, the student may be unable to meet the residency requirements for varsity sports: 1. The McKinney-Vento Act allows a student who is homeless to remain in the same school, even if homelessness forces her into temporary housing outside district lines. However, as the student is no longer technically a district resident, if she has not attended the school for twelve consecutive months prior to moving, she will lose her eligibility for varsity athletics. 2. Alternately, a student who loses his housing may be forced to move into a shelter or other temporary housing far from his school, requiring him to enroll in a new school in the 1 While most students experience homelessness along with their families, many others are homeless on their own. These young people have run away from home or been forced to leave their homes due to severe dysfunction in their families, including circumstances that put their safety and well-being at risk. Due to their circumstances, fewer than half are considered to have a realistic prospect of family reunification. Toro, P., et al. (2007). “Homeless Youth in the United States: Recent Research Findings and Intervention Approaches.” Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Physical and sexual abuse in the home is common, as studies of unaccompanied homeless youth have found that 20 to 50% were sexually abused in their homes, while 40 to 60% were physically abused. Robertson, M. & Toro, P. (1999). “Homeless Youth: Research, Intervention, and Policy.” Practical Lessons: The 1998 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Washington DC: U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. See also MacLean, M.G., Embry, L.E. & Cauce, A.M. (1999). “Homeless Adolescents’ Paths to Separation from Family: Comparison of Family Characteristics, Psychological Adjustment, and Victimization.” Journal of Community Psychology, 27(2), 179187. Parental drug use or alcoholism and conflicts with stepparents or partners also provoke youth to run away from home. Toro (2007). Over two-thirds of callers to Runaway Hotline report that at least one of their parents abuses drugs or alcohol. In a survey of unaccompanied homeless youth in California, over half felt that being homeless was as safe as or safer than being at home. Bernstein, N. & Foster, L.K. (2008). Voices from the Street: A Survey of Homeless Youth by Their Peers. Sacramento, CA: California Research Bureau. middle of a sport’s season. This student will not be eligible for varsity sports in the new school. Participation requirements that work well to limit unfair competition in ordinary circumstances do not address the reality of homelessness and add to homeless students’ list of losses: home, school, and the varsity athletic team that allowed them to shine. Ultimately, these requirements may cause youth to lose opportunities for higher education or even to drop out of school. The waiver process is too complex and time-consuming to be useful to these students who are in crisis. The McKinney-Vento Act requires state athletic associations and school districts to eliminate these barriers to homeless students’ full participation in school activities. The Act requires children and youth experiencing homeless to be enrolled in school immediately.2 It defines “enroll” as “attending classes and participating fully in school activities.”3 Therefore, the law clearly requires that students experiencing homelessness be allowed to participate fully in school athletics and other extra-curricular activities immediately.4 Several states have taken steps to ensure homeless students’ ability to participate fully in school activities.5 For example, the state school athletics associations of Delaware and Virginia revised their rules to exempt students experiencing homelessness from residency and attendance policies that create barriers to their participation. Virginia’s rule states: “Students who qualify under the McKinney Vento Homeless Education Act are eligible provided the school has on file all required documentation substantiating the student's status and provided the student is eligible in all other respects.” Rule 28A-7-2(15). Delaware’s rules state: “A student who is homeless as defined in the McKinney-Vento Act, 42 U.S.C. 11434a(2) shall be eligible to participate at the public school in which he/she is enrolled.” Rule 184.108.40.206; See also Rule 220.127.116.11. As the superintendent of XX ISD, I urge the UIL to pass a new eligibility rule exempting homeless students from residency requirements. Policies to ensure fairness, equity and safety are extremely important. Yet, students who lose their housing should not have to lose their varsity athletic participation as well. Every district in the state has a McKinney-Vento homeless liaison legally required to identify students who are homeless. Liaisons can access 2 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(3)(C). 42 U.S.C. §11434A. 4 To ensure that homeless students are allowed to participate fully in school activities immediately, the McKinney-Vento Act further requires states and school districts to eliminate barriers to the enrollment and retention in school of students experiencing homelessness. 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(1)(I), 11432(g)(7). The Act does not prevent schools from requiring homeless students to meet skill level requirements for a particular sports team, club or other activity. 5 In some states attorneys also have brought cases to ensure homeless students can participate in activities. The Superintendent of Public Instruction of Oregon upheld a homeless student’s appeal of a finding of ineligibility to participate in choir and track. An unaccompanied homeless student won the right to play basketball in a federal court case in the state of Washington in 2007. In both cases, the students ultimately won college scholarships based on their extra-curricular activities. 3 the training and support they need to apply the law and weed out potential fraud.6 Our liaisons will catch any students pretending to be homeless in order to play on a particular team. I urge you to support a new UIL rule on varsity athletics to establish a clear exception to the residency requirement for students whose McKinney-Vento homeless liaison has documented as homeless. I would note that Texas state law already establishes such an exemption for students in foster care.7 Homeless students face the same or greater vulnerability and residential instability and deserve the same recognition. Thank you, XXXXX 6 The Act requires every school district to have a homeless liaison. 42 U.S.C. §11432(g)(6)(A). Among other responsibilities, the liaison must determine which students in the district are homeless under the Act. Accurate identification is accomplished through a variety of mechanisms, including using enrollment forms designed to elicit information about homelessness, interviewing parents and youth, conducting home visits when indicated, speaking with staff at prior schools, etc. If a liaison determines that a student claiming to be homelessness does not in fact meet the definition of homeless, the liaison may take appropriate steps to prosecute the family for fraud, consistent with local and state policy. 7 Texas Education Code §25.001(f).