A weeks-long debate over whether schools should award varsity letters to students who participate in a special-needs sports league could end Monday.
Wichita school board members are scheduled to hear a report from officials with the Tri-County Sports League, a league for area high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
That report, officials said, will include a recommendation that schools award regular varsity athletic letters to Tri-County athletes who meet eligibility and participation requirements.
The issue attracted international attention recently when the mother of an East High student with Down syndrome said her son was told about a year ago that he should not wear a jacket bearing a varsity letter she had purchased. District officials have said no one asked the student, Michael Kelley, to remove the jacket, which he has since worn to school and other events without incident.
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Since then, Michael’s parents, Jolinda Kelley and Tonda McGrath, have pushed for a districtwide policy that would require schools to award varsity athletic letters to students who participate on special-needs teams.
Both women plan to address school board members again Monday, along with Michael’s sister, Mikayla. Michael Kelley will be there, too, McGrath said.
McGrath said she hasn’t heard anything specific from league officials about what they plan to propose.
“We got on the agenda in case anything and/or nothing happened, to keep the pressure on them,” she said in an e-mail.
On a Facebook page created to support their cause, Jolinda Kelley urged “one last show of support” at Monday’s board meeting, encouraging advocates of special-needs children to attend the meeting and “demonstrate that equality matters.”
During a previous report to school board members, Bryan Wilson, chairman of the Tri-County league, said his board planned to recommend that freshmen members of the league receive certificates of participation. Those in 10th grade and beyond would receive regular varsity letters – the same ones awarded to other athletes at the school – if they attend at least 70 percent of practices and games and exhibit good sportsmanship.
The district does not have a policy on varsity letters. At Wichita high schools, the awarding of athletic letters is guided by the Greater Wichita Athletic League, whose handbook outlines requirements for earning a varsity letter in various sports.
The practice of awarding letters, pins or honor cords for other school-sponsored activities is at the discretion of each high school. Some schools award the same letter for every activity. Others, including East High, have different ones.
Michael Kelley and his teammates on East’s Tri-County team earned letters in the shape of an “E.” Michael’s parents said he and other special-needs athletes deserve the same emblem – a dark blue “W” with “East” embroidered in white capital letters – that East High varsity athletes receive.
Superintendent John Allison told board members that once the Tri-County league finalizes its guidelines for eligibility, lettering and other issues, participating schools would abide by them.
In recent weeks, Michael Kelley has received hundreds of varsity letters, jackets and other items from supporters around the country, including a jacket and hat from the New York City Fire Department.
A 15-year-old student at North Providence High School in Rhode Island launched a “Varsity Mike” campaign on social media.
And East High School senior Libby Hastings started an online petition at Change.org that so far has drawn more than 83,000 signatures. The petition urges the Wichita district and East High to allow special-needs students the opportunity to earn a varsity letter if they participate on a school-sponsored team.