Public Interest Law Firm Sues to Allow Virtual School Students to Participate in High School Sports
MIAA rule change prohibits public virtual school students from playing for teams in their home districts
BOSTON – PioneerLegal, a non-profit public interest law firm, has filed suit against the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) in Norfolk County Superior Court for prohibiting students at a public virtual school from playing on high school sports teams in the students’ home district.
The plaintiff is a Massachusetts high school parent whose child, a student at a statewide virtual high school, has been denied participation in interscholastic athletics. To protect the privacy of the clients, the case was filed under pseudonyms (“Sally and Jimmy Jones”).
TEC Connections Academy Commonwealth Virtual School (TECCA) is an online public school that enrolls 3,000 students from across Massachusetts, 1,650 of whom are in high school. TECCA students had long played on their home district sports teams until the MIAA “reinterpreted” its eligibility rules as of July 1 of this year. The new rule bans students at statewide public virtual schools from playing on sports teams in their home district and even prohibits them from applying for a waiver from the rule.
“Other non-traditional schools – including homeschoolers and even district-based virtual schools – can apply for a waiver and be granted permission to participate,” said PioneerLegal President Frank Bailey. “But TECCA students cannot.”
The student plaintiff played lacrosse for his local high school team in 2021 as a TECCA student, having received an MIAA waiver. Without injunctive relief, he will have to watch this year from the sidelines, or make a painful choice about where to enroll at school.
Virtual schools attract a diverse student body. Some students have found learning in a traditional classroom to be very challenging because of bullying or emotional challenges. Others are highly advanced academically and want the ability to move more quickly. Still others seek the flexibility to train for sports activities or develop a special skill or talent such as acting.
Participating in athletics can be the only way for virtual school students to interact with their peers. For many years they have been eligible to play on teams in their home districts, where their parents often pay taxes.
The MIAA is a private association that creates rules for high school sports in Massachusetts. The fact that most public-school districts are members; its dues are mostly paid with tax dollars; and its board is made up of public employees such as school board members, teachers, superintendents and athletic directors caused the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to rule that it is a “state actor.” That means the MIAA is, for all intents and purposes, acting as the government.
The organization has done little to clarify the reason for its policy change, other than to claim that a virtual school is “no different” than a private school. TECCA is a public school under Massachusetts law.
Bailey added that “the MIAA’s decision requires students to choose between dropping participation in a sport they love or enrolling in a district school, a choice that usually is not in their personal or academic interest.”
One statement from MIAA Executive Director Bob Baldwin may offer insight into the policy change. He said “principals, athletic directors, and guidance personnel should counsel students regarding athletic eligibility prior to committing to non-traditional educational pursuits.”
PioneerLegal is being assisted in this case on a pro bono basis by the law firm of Sullivan & Worcester. The plaintiffs plan to seek an injunction to prevent TECCA students from being prohibited from participating in high school sports during the Fall semester.