David Gorczynski can run another year.
The autistic 20-year-old who for the past three years has competed as a member of the Orchard Park High School cross country team will be allowed to participate during his fourth and final year of high school, thanks to State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski’s ruling that exempts Gorczynski from a state age restriction.
“We’re extremely happy,” said Gorczynski’s attorney, Linda J. DeTine of Neighborhood Legal Services, on Friday. “This means David can run. The judge did a very fair thing. The family is very happy.”
Gorczynski’s mother, Mary Ellen Gorczynski, first went to State Supreme Court seeking an injunction to keep the school district and state from enforcing the age restriction after the state Education Department refused to grant her son a second waiver to participate in cross country for the 2013-14 school year. Gorczynski’s mother could not be reached for comment.
Under current state guidelines for allowing disabled students to participate in high school athletics, students whose education has been delayed because of their disabilities can request a waiver to participate an extra year, whether it’s a fifth season or because the student is older than 19, the default cut-off age for eligibility.
Gorczynski, whose disabilities include an autism spectrum disorder, cognitive disabilities and an orthopedic disorder causing one leg to be shorter than the other, was granted such a waiver allowing him to run last school year.
But according to a subsection buried so deeply in the state’s education rules that it would take a runner’s lungs to read its precise location in one breath, state education law provides for one waiver – and one waiver only – per student. Without Friday’s court order, Gorczynski, who turns 21 in January, would not have been eligible to run this year.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy, who urged State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. and members of the Board of Regents to let Gorczynski participate on the cross country team after learning of his situation through a Buffalo News report last month, was thrilled with the judge’s ruling, saying that the decision sets an important precedent for student athletes with disabilities around the state.
“I can tell you the fact that David will be able to run with his team the way he desires but also deserves is a tremendous victory for him, his family, his school and the community,” Kennedy said Friday. “It will have a positive impact for all students across New York State, especially student athletes with disabilities who have been cut out because of this needless and senseless bureaucratic regulation.”
Kennedy said he expects the State Board of Regents to accept the ruling from the court and also to take it a step further and change the regulation at its September meeting.
Robert M. Bennett, Western New York’s Regent representative and the board’s chancellor emeritus, agreed, telling The News that the board has no plans to protest the judge’s decision.
“It was a very compelling story,” Bennett said of Gorczynski’s situation. “I started to think, ‘What if this were my son?’ I’d want him to run,” said Bennett, who lobbied the board on Gorczynski’s behalf.
Bennett emphasized that the board’s decision not to argue the ruling did not mean the board doubted the fairness of the current rule. The State Education Department’s policies regarding disabled student athletes “were passed with the intent of protecting kids,” particularly in contact sports, Bennett said, and should remain in effect.
That being said, Bennett said the board would re-examine the rules in September, in hopes of adding flexibility to accommodate future cases like Gorczynski’s without a court order. The goal, he said, is to give the education commissioner the authority to grant individual exemptions in cases where the student’s safety is not compromised by the particular sport or set of circumstances.
“My hope is we can allow for some discretion for the commissioner,” Bennett said.
News of the decision was welcomed by Gorczynski’s teammates and coaches, who said he had a positive impact on everyone in the sport – teammates and opponents alike.
Ted Washburn, who was head coach of Orchard Park cross country the first year Gorczynski joined, said the disabled runner’s continued participation “represents all that’s good about sports.”
Seeing Gorczynski cross the finish line with “pure joy and happiness on his face” regardless of how he placed – Gorczynski has finished last in every race he has entered so far – helps shift the emphasis away from winning and losing and onto the joy of competing, Washburn said.
“You would not believe how many kids it brought together,” Washburn said of the fans and runners from every school that cheer Gorczynski on as he crosses the finish line. Seeing Gorczynski compete, he added, teaches kids without much prior exposure to people with disabilities that everyone deserves appreciation and respect, regardless of their limitations.
The decision came just in time for Gorczynski to join his teammates when official team practices kick off later this month.
Gorczynski has attended Orchard Park since the 2010-11 school year, but due to his disabilities, he remains an ungraded student.