BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) — Unified Sports provides special needs students with a chance to participate in a variety of sports.
But while all other varsity teams in the Buffalo Public School District have been given the okay to return to play this month, the district’s Unified basketball has not.
This controversial decision by the city school district is receiving a strong response from families and the school community.
“Let them play, let them play” was the rallying cry from the Masten basketball courts in Buffalo.
Parents, students, teachers and coaches are in opposition to the district's decision to halt unified sports.
While other unified teams across Western New York are allowed to play, the city school district issued this letter saying the athletic department is facing its own "set of challenges" due to Covid and will only allow varsity sports to reopen, but will not offer unified sports at this time.
“Playing for Unified Sports has changed my life and for other kids I play with for Olmsted,” declared Nasir, Olmsted School student.
Nasir says he has autism and plays with many other kids like him. He’s calling on the district to bring back Unified Sports.
“It’s something special. It’s something that gives kids the opportunity to play just like the varsity and JV team,” Nasir noted.
Unified Sports allows students with intellectual disabilities to play on varsity teams with school athletes.
“And I had a parent come up to me and ask me so which one of the students has disabilities and that one of the most rewarding things I had every heard,” stated Jim Bartram, Olmsted teacher & coach.
“It’s disappointing. It’s heartbreaking for our kids as well,” said Shannon Kiblins, parent.
Kiblin's 16-year-old son Noah is a Unified Sports basketball player at City Honors School.
Four city schools; City Honors, Olmsted, Hutch Tech and Middle College all participate. One coach is provided for each of the teams and students play in six games.
Noah is in 11th grade at City Honors and and is also enrolled in the school's STARS program for students with autism.
“Do you miss basketball?”, Buckley asked.
“Yes, I like playing basketball with my team,” replied Noah. Noah's mom says Unified Sports allowed him to form special friendships.
“They would see each other in the halls. They would stop and chat — sometimes Noah would sit with him and his friends at lunch and that's all things that would have never happened,” Kiblin described.
Parents say they've been given several reasons by the district's athletic department including telling families they're not sure how the students ended up in their department and are “handing them off to the special education department”.
Kiblin says that's outrageous.
“That's the box that you're putting them in — you're basically saying every aspect of their schooling — no matter what they do is going to be based on their special education and not who they are as kids,” Kiblin explained.
Edward Speidel is a parent of a special education student at Olmsted. He says the decision lacks equity.
“There’s no equity when you let a general ed student playing basketball and you don’t let a special ed kid play — it’s embarrassing and it’s insulting and and we can’t stand for it,” Speidel stated.
District Parent Coordinating Council president Wendy Mistretta is calling on the district to reverse the decision.
“We believe the district has made a mistake not scheduling Unified basketball this year,” Mistretta remarked.
The district's General Counsel Nathaniel Kuzma issued a statement the following statement to 7 Eyewitness News:
“It is fair to say there are students with disabilities on all or almost all of our athletic teams because the District does not exclude students with disabilities from participating in the District’s regular sports offerings. It is problematic legally to segregate students with disabilities from these opportunities.”
Nathaniel Kuzma, special counsel, Buffalo Public School District
A very reliable source tells 7 Eyewitness News all four schools are ready and willing to host play for the students.