Leavitt’s Jonathan Schomaker competes in the Mt. Blue Relays last Friday in Farmington. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The Maine Principals’ Association said in a news release Thursday that it is offering Leavitt Area High School sophomore Jonathon Schomaker a couple of options for competing at the Class B South regional cross country meet later this month at Twin Brook Recreation Area.

The 15-year-old Schomaker, who lives in Greene, suffers from cerebellar hypoplasia and uses a wheelchair during races. He was first denied the opportunity to participate in postseason meets in 2018, and has been fighting for the right to race at the regional meet since an appeal filed by Leavitt was denied last month.

Jon Schomaker, who runs alongside Jonathan during races, is not satisfied with the MPA’s options.

In the news release, the MPA outlined the two choices for Leavitt and Schomaker. Option A is “a separate wheelchair division that would compete at the state championship as well as the regional championships.” Option B is what the MPA calls an “exhibition race.”

Jonathan Schomaker’s desire is to race alongside his teammates.

A letter the MPA sent Leavitt principal Eben Shaw, which was obtained by the Sun Journal, offers more clarity to the two options. 

Option A is a separate wheelchair race that would compete on the same day as runners on a shorter, modified course. After Tuesday’s meeting at Twin Brook between Schomaker, his father Jon, Leavitt coach Neal Rioux and race director Mike Griffin, there were three alternative courses (referred to as A, B and C) mapped out for Schomaker. The course that is chosen by Schomaker and Leavitt will also be used the set distance used at next year’s regional and state meets in Belfast.

Under this proposal, Schomaker would earn a medal at the end of each race and would have state records established for wheelchair meets to come. 

Option B is an integrated race that would allow Schomaker to race on course ‘B’ alongside the other runners in the B South regional championship race, which is Saturday, Oct. 26. This option includes having a marshal regulate one crossing of Schomaker and the runners in which runners would have right of way.

Schomaker would not count as a team member and the scoring of the race would not include a wheelchair division, and therefore would not allow him to qualify to compete at the Class B state meet Nov. 2, also at Twin Brook.

Jon Schomaker, Jonathan’s father, said the options bring more questions.

“They both suck,” Jon Schomaker said. “They’re so close. They’re saying, ‘We’ll give you what you want, sort of, but we will exclude him.’”

Jon Schomaker, along with a lawyer put on the case by Disability Rights Maine, doesn’t understand why there must be two options. 

“I am still at a loss,” Jon Schomaker said. “They can recognize a division by himself, but if he runs the same course with other runners he isn’t a wheelchair athlete? It makes no sense to me or the lawyer.”

The letter was received Wednesday, and the MPA has given the Schomakers and Leavitt until Friday to decide.

“You have this dropped in your lap for a year, a year, guys, come on,” Jon Schomaker said Thursday. “Now we were presented with the option yesterday by a phone call to (Leavitt athletic director Ryan) Laroche and are supposed to make a knee-jerk reaction off the interpretation of a phone call.”

The MPA could not be reached for comment Thursday. In the press release, MPA executive director Mike Burnham mentioned concerns for Jon Schomaker’s safety.

“While this young man has participated in cross country races during the season without mishap, the Twin Brook course … with its uneven terrain, steep hills, sharp turns, that can be slippery and muddy if there’s rain before or during the race, will be very challenging,” Burnham said.

Jon Schomaker sees it differently after watching Jonathan test the Twin Brook course Tuesday, which Mike Bisson, the head of the MPA’s cross country committee, was unable to attend due to illness.

“Overall, it’s slower than some (courses) because the first half-mile is in the grass, but if they had bothered to show up when we did the run-through, (the MPA) could see what he does,” Jon Schomaker said. “It’s a non-issue. It’s the smoothest course we have done all season. I counted three roots all course. Leavitt has roots three times as tall, and that many every 10 feet.

“Either it’s safe or not, and obviously it is because I wouldn’t put my kid in harm’s way.”

Burnham said in the letter sent to Leavitt that, with the help of a marshal, “it was determined that it was possible to have the wheelchair athlete compete at the same time as the runners, yet not create a safety concern for himself or others.”

The MPA said it made its decision after consulting with its cross country committee, the U.S. Paralympics, Adaptive Sports of New England, and the National Federation of State High Schools, Sports Medicine Committee and Interscholastic Management Committee.

Dr. William Heinz, a medical orthopedist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of sports-related injuries, and who advises the MPA on sports medicine, said in the MPA’s news release that he supports its decision.

“I believe the options provided to Leavitt Area High School by the MPA are extremely reasonable and, most important, safe for all concerned,” Heinz said. “I understand the emotions involved, but the safety of all students should be paramount.”

Jon Schomaker isn’t content with either of the MPA’s two options.

“They’re trying to strong-arm me into, ‘It’s OK to segregate and we will give him his own little race,’” Schomaker said. 

Burnham, in the MPA’s news release, said that last year the MPA helped Schomaker compete in indoor track. 

We want all student athletes to be able to participate,” Burnham said. “In fact, we worked with this young man just last winter to develop standards in indoor track. We’ve had a wheelchair division in outdoor track for several years and believe we can develop a similar program for cross country.”

Jon Schomaker said that for track and field, the MPA gave Jonathan the option to compete alongside runners or by himself, unlike the initial ruling to Leavitt’s appeal regarding the MPA’s original cross country ruling. 

I think there was a part (in the news release) that they worked with us in indoor and outdoor, but that was all a choice, so we went on the safe side and had him do his own race because he was still learning the race chair,” Schomaker said. “They won’t tell the press that. That was our choice because he was still learning to use the race chair. The Renegade chair (which Jonathan uses for cross country), he is the supreme master of it and has been doing it since he was 7. It’s also a lot more maneuverable than a race chair (used for track) is. To say, ‘Look at this, he’s been racing by himself (in track),’ it’s by our choice, not because it was mandated.”

Jon Schomaker isn’t backing down. He said that he and Jonathan, as well as Leavitt, have not made a final decision yet, and that the fight will continue.

“We knew that if they started to dig their heels it would blow up in their face,” Schomaker said. “I’m not giving up on this because it is the right thing to do. They’ll go down in history nationwide as the ones that discriminated against the disabled kid. I truly believe they don’t care, don’t care what they look like to others.”

In its news release, the MPA said that through its research it found no other state in the country that allows wheelchair athletes to compete alongside runners in high school cross country races.

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