Extracurricular Rights 101
Academics are essential to a student’s growth and progress, but school isn’t only about classes. Extracurricular activities such as clubs, arts programs, school spirit events, sports, dances, and more can enrich a child’s life and get them involved in their community.
Extracurricular activities can also help a child:
build skills, social and otherwise,
learn to work as a member of a team,
make new friends, and
So, what rights does your child have regarding engagement in extracurricular and other nonacademic programs? What supports are available to them, and what limitations should you expect? We spoke with special education attorney Grace Clark to find out.
Right to participate in extracurricular activities
According to Section 300.107 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA):
Each public agency must take steps, including the provision of supplementary aids and services determined appropriate and necessary by the child’s IEP team, to provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in the manner necessary to afford children with disabilities an equal opportunity for participation in those services and activities.
In other words, every child has a right to equal access to school-sponsored activities such as clubs, arts programs, and dances. Any activity hosted by the school or district falls into this category. IDEA doesn’t explicitly define extracurricular activities, but lists generalized examples, including “athletics,” “recreational activities,” and “special interest groups or clubs.” The California Education Code also contains a list of qualifying nonacademic services, including “recreational services.”
Some activities and programs that are typically considered to be extracurricular include:
grade or school-wide performances,
choir or band,
clubs for cooking, math, photography, and other subjects, and
school newspapers or yearbook committees.
In the case of competitive programs such as athletics and some choir and theater productions, participation may be determined through a try-out process, which means a student will need to perform at a certain level to join the program or team. However, a child with disabilities has a right to try out with reasonable accommodations as determined by their IEP team.
For example, if a student who is deaf wants to join the track team, it is reasonable for the coach to wave a flag rather than blow a whistle to signal to the runners that the race is starting.
It is important to note that, according to the California Department of Education, schools are prohibited from charging “pupil fees” for students to participate in school-sponsored activities, including:
any fees as a condition to register for classes or extracurricular activities,
security deposits for musical instruments, uniforms, or other equipment, and
any materials or supplies a student is required to buy to participate.
What supports does my child have a right to?
The accommodations a child requires to participate in both academic and nonacademic school activities will be determined by their IEP team — but the accommodations they need may not easily extend to every extracurricular interest. Woodsmall Law Group puts it this way: “The U.S. Supreme Court held that the offer of FAPE needs to provide just a ‘basic floor of opportunity,’ but it does not need to ‘maximize the potential’ of a student.” Therefore, it falls to the child and their parents to make the case that the extracurricular activity is an essential opportunity for them to make progress toward their individual goals. Grace Clark adds that parents should prepare concrete examples for the IEP team showing how an activity will provide their child with a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), and help them meet those goals.
For example, an after-school Lego League is run by a student’s math teacher; many of the other students in the math class are members, and club activities are sometimes discussed during class. A parent could argue that their child needs to join in order to do well in math class. If the IEP team agrees, and the child needs a 1:1 aide to attend, then that accommodation can be written into the IEP.
Occasionally, these situations can become complicated. For example, an after-school enrichment class your child attends requires that the aide your child needs to participate be a school employee. However, union rules dictate that school employees are not allowed to work with families after school hours. What can you do?
According to Grace Clark, if it is a school-sponsored activity, the school or district is responsible for supplying an aide. If it is written into a child’s IEP that they require an aide to participate in this activity and receive FAPE, then they must be accommodated, even if the school has to hire outside of their typical contracting pool.
Limits on student rights for extracurricular activities
Private companies and third-party providers, including nonprofits, are not required to follow IDEA regulations or to provide FAPE. However, other anti-discrimination laws do apply, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a child cannot be denied access on the basis of their disability. If an activity is provided on-campus by a third party, or is provided off-campus by the district, the school may be required to provide the supports and modifications listed in a child’s IEP. But private providers may not have to provide services if the activity is not sponsored by the school or if it is off-campus. Grace Clark suggests talking with the third-party provider whose program your child is interested in joining to find out what services and supports they can offer.
Of course, parents have the option of providing any necessary accommodations, such as a 1:1 aide, independently, as long as the business isn’t charged and the program isn’t fundamentally changed. (Keep in mind that many programs will require that aides be cleared by the district or another agency, such as a respite agency.) According to Undivided’s public benefits specialist Lisa Concoff Kronbeck, some Regional Centers may now be able to utilize social-recreational funding for inclusion aides, but not all of them have a mechanism for staffing those positions. Check with your Regional Center to see what options they have available. If a child is receiving in-home ABA services, Concoff Kronbeck says, “the therapist may also be able to attend with the child if they need the behavioral intervention in order to be able to participate in the program.”
What if my child’s rights are violated?
If your school district is denying your child’s right to participate in extracurricular activities, regulations under IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act offer protections and enforcement procedures.
IDEA allows you to:
make a Part B due process complaint in the form of a written letter to the district, which will lead to a due process hearing to resolve the conflict; and
file a compliance complaint with the California Department of Education, formally asking them to investigate the violation.
The Americans with Disabilities Act allows you to:
- make a discrimination complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
Is your child participating in extracurricular activities this year? How’s it going? Let us know in the comments!