Monday, March 30, 2015
Why shouldn't students with special needs earn varsity letters?
It seems like it ought to be a given: Athletes with special needs should have the same chance to earn school varsity letters as other athletes, celebrating their own unique achievements. If a school doesn't allow that, it's discriminatory. Yet that's exactly what's been going on at East High in Wichita, Kansas, as the world discovered last week when the story of Michael Kelley—a teen with Down syndrome and autism—went viral. Today, a classmate will be presenting her Change.org petition at a Board of Ed meeting, it's already racked up close to 43,000 signatures in support of allowing students with special needs to earn varsity letters.
Michael participates in an extra-curricular basketball team for kids with special needs, reported ksn.com. To encourage her son his mom, Jolinda, bought him an East High varsity jacket and official letter. Only it seems another parent wasn't pleased that Michael was wearing that jacket. While at school, Michael was told to remove it and gave him a sweatshirt to wear instead.
How mortifying that must have been for Michael, for starters. Couldn't they have just waited till the end of the school day, if they had to ask him to remove it at all?
According to East High Principal Ken Thiessen, the school was following policy: Only athletes on varsity teams can wear a varsity letter. When asked by a reporter if the school would ever consider giving kids with special needs a varsity letter, he said, "We have considered it, and our decision was no. We decided that it is not appropriate in our situation because it is not a varsity level competition."
For sure, the students in the special needs athletic programming aren't competing at the standard "varsity level." But there is no comparison. They are competing at their level. The school should establish requirements for students with special needs to earn varsity letters. This isn't about giving these teens a free pass—it's giving them the recognition they deserve.
There's no district policy on this in Wichita. In fact, the district Athletic Director noted that when he worked for another high school, they did allow students with special needs to earn letters.
Of course, this raises big questions about what's going on at schools across the country, where I'll bet situations are similar to this one: It depends on the individual school policy. Happily, a growing number of schools now have sports programs for kids with special needs, thanks in part to efforts by nonprofits like Special Olympics Project UNIFY. Whether or not these athletes are treated as equals is a whole other question. Really, one our kids have to contend with in every facet of their lives.
Why there's even a question about this is mind-boggling, like the one posted on the Facebook page of this Kansas City TV station: "Do you think special needs athletes should be eligible for varsity letters?" Why not? Assuming they meet the established criteria for getting a letter, they have every right to that honor.
Libby Hastings, the classmate of Michael's who started the change.org petition, summed it up best when she wrote, "My passion is soccer and I wear my varsity letter with pride. It's a symbol of all my hard work and the love I have for my school.... Michael works just as hard as I do, shows just as much passion, and loves our school deeply. He deserves to be awarded a varsity letter just as much I do."
Meanwhile, the principal and athletic director of nearby Santana High School, Mark Calvin, sent Michael an official varsity letter along with a note: "You can be a part of something anywhere you want to."
8 ways to include kids with special needs in sports and other activities
Image: ksn.com video