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The Region

Blind Runner Sidelined by State's Rules

Sports: Thousand Oaks High track team member can't participate in a fifth season. His only hope may be an official policy change.

June 24, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the four years he has been on the Thousand Oaks High School track team, he has never won a race. In fact, he has finished dead last every time.

But Jim Rosso doesn't care. The 18-year-old has been blind since birth and runs so he can hear the cheers of the crowd and feel his teammates' pats on the back when he finishes a meet.

Next year, though he will still be a student at Thousand Oaks High, Rosso won't be allowed on the track team. The snag: A state rule prohibits any student from competing in high school sports for more than four years.

California Interscholastic Federation officials say they can't make an exception for him. Even if he doesn't officially compete, the rules prevent him from even participating in school track meets.

Rosso's mother, Robin, however, says it's ridiculous that her son is being held back by a rule that was designed to prevent star athletes from gaining an unfair advantage over other students.

"We're not talking about a Carl Lewis who's winning every race," she said. "Jim just loves the applause. And the fact that this kid is totally blind and can do this is inspiring to people. It's the one area where people really praise him and tell him he does a good job."

Her son faces a dilemma that may become much more common after 2004, when all seniors will be required to take the California High School Exit Exam.

Those who don't pass won't graduate, and that could mean large numbers of fifth-year seniors--many of whom may want to stay on sports teams.

A CIF committee is reviewing the four-year rule to prepare for that situation, said CIF Executive Director Marie Ishida. A recommendation is expected this fall.

"How do we distinguish between this particular case and someone else's?" Ishida asked. "It would be really difficult to be objective about approving one and not another."

Still, Robin Rosso will go on fighting. Last week, she asked a Los Angeles-based advocacy group for the disabled to review her son's case.

But her chances of winning a legal battle may be slim. Catherine Skivers, president of the California Council of the Blind, said her group typically fights for equal protection, not for exceptions to the rules.

"If he wasn't being allowed on the team at all, we'd be right there," she said.

"We're always proud of blind achievers, but since he has been on the team four years, I don't see any violation."

Rosso has been running since he was 5 years old, when his father would take him around the Westlake High School track near the family's Thousand Oaks home.

He is totally blind and gets around the track with help from a seeing guide who runs alongside him, their elbows lightly touching so Rosso can find his way.

He started competing in community 5K runs in junior high and joined the track team when he got to high school.

After three years of junior varsity track, Rosso made it to the varsity team last season. He never missed a practice and ran the 800-meter race in every meet, earning a varsity letter after the season ended in April.

Rosso also got a special "coach's award," he said. It wasn't for his speed--at his best time, he is still more than a minute slower than the top young runners in the state--but for his dedication.

"That was a surprise," Rosso said. "For me, track has meant getting good exercise, making friends and it means getting a lot of attention. And I like people applauding for me."

His passion for running evolved out of his parents' desire to make sure he stayed in good shape, because obesity is a common problem among the blind.

"It can be a very sedentary lifestyle," his mother said. "We can take him to gyms and he can run on the treadmill, but track is very motivating for him. Without the meets, that encouragement's not going to be there."

Though Rosso has completed all of the academic credits he needs to graduate from high school, he will enroll at Thousand Oaks High again this fall.

His mother said he needs extra time to continue working with a school district specialist, who is helping him hone the mobility skills he needs to qualify for a guide dog. At the same time, he will take one or two classes at Moorpark College.

Such a course of study is not unusual for blind or other handicapped students, who by state law may stay in high school until age 22, said Jack Bannon, special education coordinator for the Conejo Unified School District.

Though a number of students stay behind each year, Bannon said, Rosso's request to participate in sports an extra season is a first in the district. He said he understands why the CIF rule exists, but doesn't see how it applies in this case.

"Clearly it's his desire to participate in track and field another year, not to become more competitive," he said. "I think he has a real love for running."

Robin Rosso said she has not given up hope on the track team but is looking into other options.

She is trying to determine whether her son could compete in a different sport, such as wrestling, at the high school. And she will ask Moorpark College track coaches whether he could run with that school's team, but was initially told her son would have to be a full-time student.

"It's so funny--all we're talking about is this kid who wants to run around a track," she said. "It's been such a struggle for something so simple."

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