Wichita East High School student Michael Kelley has become a national figure recently, dominating social media, appearing in headlines, and acting as a catalyst for debate over special needs students and their recognition in high school sports. Kelley, who happens to have Down Syndrome, has participated in basketball for years through the school and other extra-curricular programs. As a means of rewarding Michael and recognizing his hard work and dedication, his family bought him a letter for his jacket that looked like the letters awarded to varsity players. Instead of making him feel like a part of the school, Michael’s jacket prompted a Wichita East mother to complain about the letter, and Michael was forced to remove the jacket during a game, and wear a sweatshirt instead.
The complaint obviously upset Michael and his parents, who were shocked by the school’s capitulation and outright support for those that made the complaint. According to school policy, only varsity athletes are allowed to letter in sports, which does not include the special needs team that Michael was a part of. According to Wichita East principal Ken Thiessen varsity letters are for varsity letter winners only. The district has no such policy, and schools can craft their own lettering policy as they see fit.
This callous attitude towards Michael and other kids with special needs infuriated his mother, Jolinda Kelley, who is now lobbying to create a district-wide policy that will allow for the recognition of students like her son, who are as deserving of reward and acknowledgment as varsity athletes. Not only is Jolinda bringing attention to the actions of East High, but her efforts are sparking conversation and reflection on how special needs students are treated and recognized across the nation. Her passionate defense of her son could have reverberations across the country and could help change the attitude towards students like Michael.
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