To its credit, the Wichita school board approved guidelines Monday under which schools will award regular varsity letters to special-needs athletes who meet criteria for participation, sportsmanship and academics.
That seems a satisfactory conclusion to what has been a painful controversy for the community and especially Wichita East High School, which was unfairly and inaccurately criticized as insensitive and even cruel to students with disabilities.
Rather than rush to judgment in response to the recent social-media firestorm – including an online petition with more than 83,000 signatures – district leaders wisely let the work of the Tri-County Athletic League be their guide.
The league, for teams of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at 11 area high schools, already had been crafting a lettering policy and other rules, which are part of a new six-page handbook presented to the school board Monday.
The change now leaves the district open to criticism from those who think varsity letters should be reserved for varsity athletes who meet the guidelines of the Greater Wichita Athletic League. But the new policy is no giveaway. Special-needs students must participate on Tri-County teams for two seasons and in at least 70 percent of practices and games; show good sportsmanship, effort and respect; and remain in good standing academically.
Now, principals and schools in the district have direction from the school board on how to reward special-needs athletes.
And the family of student Michael Kelley and his supporters have achieved the goal set by the hashtag “#givethemletters.”
After all the negativity, it was nice to see Marty Rothwell, program director of the Arc of Sedgwick County, highlight the district’s support for the Tri-County league as unusual and special. Parents say “this is our kids’ chance to shine,” he said, “and it’s all because of USD 259 and your dedication to all students.”
Those in the community who were touched by Michael’s story should consider taking the next step to help students like him: donate money, time and talent to groups that serve those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
That includes the Arc of Sedgwick County (arc-sedgwickcounty.org; 316-943-1191), which not only is involved in the Tri-County league’s operations but needs volunteers and private dollars to support its mentoring, camps and other programs. Other agencies that do fine work serving similar populations include Rainbows United (www.rainbowsunited.org) and Heartspring (www.heartspring.org).
It would be great to see the outpouring of concern that led up to the school board’s policy decision transform into more caring, support and action on behalf of such students in our community for the long term.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman