A week and half before the Class B South regional cross country meet, Jonathan Schomaker still doesn’t know if he’ll be able to compete alongside his teammates. The relevant question for the Maine Principals’ Association is, why is this so hard?

Schomaker, a 15-year-old sophomore at Leavitt Area High School, has the neurological disorder cerebellar hypoplasia and races in a wheelchair. Through two regular seasons, and previously while in middle school, Schomaker competed on the same course as his teammates and opponents, save a modification or two and with the help of his father, who is there in case Schomaker gets stuck in tall grass or mud.

Because of these accommodations, Schomaker’s race isn’t scored. But he starts at the starting line, maneuvers the same course and crosses the same finish line. He is a member of the team, and a member of the cross country community as whole.

Last year, however, the Maine Principals’ Association did not allow Schomaker to compete in the regional finals. His appeal to compete this year was rejected as well, with the MPA citing safety concerns.

In rejecting the appeal in late September, the MPA said Schomaker’s presence on the course could put him and other competitors at risk, even though there were no problems at the regular season meets in which Schomaker raced.

The MPA also said the course could not be modified, even though that solution has worked in previous meets too.

The MPA’s reasoning didn’t make a lot of sense to others either, and the organization eventually gave in — a little, at least.

Ten days after denying the appeal, the MPA said it would tour the course and explore other options; a few days later, the organization said Schomaker could race separately, in his own wheelchair division.

But separate is not equal. Schomaker has shown in the regular season meets that he can compete alongside his teammates, and he should have that opportunity in the year-end meets as well.

For his part, Schomaker took to the course Tuesday along with his coach and the meet director to show that he could race alongside the other competitors without interfering with other runners.

The test proved Schomaker’s participation in the regional meet is “absolutely doable,” his father told Adam Robinson of the Lewiston Sun Journal. No one from the MPA was there to witness it, though an official had said previously that representatives would attend.

Unfortunately, that ambivalence appears to have been a problem all along. Many of the people charged with making decisions about Schomaker have not seen him race, his father said. His coach said the MPA was oddly stuck on whether Schomaker’s scores would count when that has never been the focus of his appeal — he just wants to compete with his teammates.

And while Schomaker, his father, his coach and many others have been simply trying to find a solution, the MPA has acted hesitantly at every step. Rather than trying to find a way to say “yes” to Schomaker — rather than working through a rather unique though not impossible set of circumstances to allow a student-athlete to meet his goals to the detriment of no one — the organization keeps settling for the easy “no.”

The MPA should do the right thing and allow Schomaker to compete like any other runner — then ask themselves why it took so long.

 


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