A Tale of Two Cities: Special Needs Athletes and the High School Varsity
By Doug Abrams
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, . . . it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859).
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In the past month or so, I recalled Dickens’ classic opening lines when I read about how differently two students with Down syndrome were treated in two cities more than 700 miles apart. The first story – from Kenosha, Wisconsin – reported wisdom by a courageous middle-school basketball team. The second story – from Wichita, Kansas — reported foolishness by a high school’s administrators after one parent lodged a complaint.
Wisdom in Kenosha, Wisconsin
In my March 17 column, I wrote about a basketball game at Kenosha’s Lincoln Middle School. The eighth-grade Lincoln players saw fans verbally abusing one of their cheerleaders, Desiree Andrews, who has Down syndrome. The abuse was happening (perhaps not for the first time) right under the noses of adult coaches and other school officials, who evidently did nothing to stop it. That was when the players took matters into their own hands, halting the game and approaching the stands together to stop the bullying of their classmate.
“The kids in the audience were picking on Dee, so we all stepped forward,” Lincoln Middle School player Chase Vazquez said later. “We walked off the court and went to the bullies and told them to stop because that’s not right to be mean to another person,” teammate Miles Rodriguez told Fox & Friends. “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong,” teammate Scooter Terrien explained to WTMJ-TV, because “we’re all created the same.”
By protecting a seemingly easy target who was no match for bullies, the Lincoln middle school basketball players took action uncommon among students their age. Sooner or later, most school bullying happens in front of student onlookers, but few onlookers intervene on a victim’s behalf or report the bullying. Onlookers are much more likely to avoid associating with the victim, or even to join the bullies in an effort to boost social position or to avoid being targeted themselves.
One study found that 85% of school bullying incidents had student onlookers, but that onlookers intervened to protect the victim only 10% of the time. The Kenosha middle school basketball players joined the ranks of the 10%.
Foolishness in Wichita, Kansas
Contrast the Kenosha story with one from Wichita, Kansas. Nineteen-year-old Michael Kelley, a Wichita East High School student, does not let Down syndrome or autism dampen his love for basketball. He plays on the school’s team for special needs students, which competes against similar teams fielded by about 14 other high schools. Unlike at least one other area high school, Wichita East denies members of special needs teams an opportunity to earn varsity letters because the school does not recognize these teams as holding varsity status.
Michael’s mother recently bought him a varsity jacket, which he was asked to remove when he wore it to school. The request reportedly came after a complaint lodged by one varsity athlete’s parent. Michael was handed a sweatshirt to wear instead, and his story went viral.
Social media commentary has overwhelmingly condemned the high school’s position. Varsity athletes across the nation have reportedly shown support for Michael by sending him their own varsity letters and letter jackets. Classmate Libby Hastings, a Wichita East girls’ varsity soccer team member, began a nationwide online petition supporting him. The petition has gathered more than 40,000 signatures. “Michael works as hard as I do, shows just as much passion, and loves our school deeply,” she wrote. “He deserves to be awarded a varsity letter just as much as I do.”
Access and Participation
The Kenosha and Wichita stories remind us that as America continues moving toward greater inclusion of persons with disabilities, much work remains to enlighten some people’s attitudes.
The U.S. Department of Education says that “access to, and participation in, extracurricular athletic opportunities provide important health and social benefits to all students, particular those with disabilities.” For many special needs students, access and participation mean membership on school teams that are open to all students selected by coaches after tryouts and evaluation. For other special needs students, such membership is inadvisable or impossible; school-sponsored special needs teams become viable alternatives for channeling love of the game, devotion to self and team, and willingness to work hard.
When a school allows athletes to earn varsity letters for playing on special needs teams, the school does not devalue the letters won by other athletes, such as the son or daughter of the Wichita parent complainant. The accomplishments of the other athletes remain intact, and so does the honor that the letter bestows on them.
The key word here is “earn.” Special needs students need no handouts or gratuitous recognition. When they play on a team that represents the school, however, they deserve the opportunity to fulfill school-adopted lettering requirements that recognize their athletic accomplishments, including their perseverance to surmount obstacles unknown to other students. Perhaps that is one reason why, as KSNW-TV reports, Satanta High School (Satanta, Kan.) is sending Michael an honorary varsity letter and manager’s pin.
If any doubt remains about whether special needs students deserve opportunities to earn varsity letters, public schools should resolve that doubt in favor of the national policy that maximizes inclusion of special needs citizens in the American experience. In youth sports and other daily endeavors, maximized inclusion grounded in reasonable accommodation is best for the special needs citizens, best for the community, and best for the nation.
Light and Darkness
To borrow from the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, the Kenosha and Wichita stories contrast a “season of Light” and a “season of Darkness.” So far, Wichita East administrators have reaffirmed the no-varsity-letters policy, but the firestorm of protest and condemnation may have prodded them to re-examine the policy by the end of the school year. Until then, these administrators face a national and local student-led backlash fueled by their own evident unwillingness to reject one parent’s complaint.
As Wichita East High School’s officials seek a compass, the Kenosha middle school basketball players’ story can steer them in the right direction. The middle schoolers’ story can also reorient the solitary Wichita parent complainant, whose pride in the varsity letter jacket worn by the family’s athlete doubtlessly knows no bounds.
Sources: Middle school basketball players defend bullied cheerleader, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/wisconsin-middle-school-basketball-players-defend-bullied-cheerleader/ (Mar. 12, 2015); Players leave court mid-game to confront bully of cheerleader with Down syndrome, http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/03/13/players-leave-court-mid-game-to-confront-bully-cheerleader-with-down-syndrome/ (Mar. 13, 2015); Deneen Smith, Welcome to D’s House, Kenosha (Wis.) Times, Mar. 9, 2015; Andy Isaac, One Parent’s Complaint Caused a Special Needs Student to Lose His Varsity Letter, http://uproxx.com/sports/2015/03/michael-kelley-varsity-letter/ (Mar. 28, 2015); KTLA 5, High School in Kansas Tells Down Syndrome Student to Stop Wearing Varsity Jacket, http://ktla.com/2015/03/30/high-school-strips-special-needs-student-of-varsity-jacket/ (Mar. 30, 2015); Cindy Boren, After Asking Special Needs Student to Remove Letter Jacket, Principal Defends His Actions, Washington Post, Mar. 30, 2015; Lindsay Cobb, Schools Reach Out to Special Needs Athlete, http://ksn.com/2015/03/27/schools-reach-out-to-special-needs-athlete/.