The principal of a Wichita high school under attack for its practice of awarding different athletic letters to special-needs students posted a letter to the community on the school’s website late Sunday.
In the letter, East High School Principal Ken Thiessen expressed frustration about “horrible comments from people who have no idea what East High is really all about.”
“Suggesting that our school doesn’t support and embrace special needs students is simply not reflective or indicative of the culture we have in our building,” Thiessen said. “Our administrators, our teachers and staff, as well as our entire student body value all of our students.”
Thiessen said leaders of the Tri-County Athletic League, which includes teams of special-needs students from more than a dozen area schools, has been working to develop league-wide standards for athletic letters and a letter design, and he has been awaiting its recommendation.
“If the league’s recommendation is that the letter looks just like each school’s varsity athletic letter, I can and will support that,” Thiessen said.
The issue attracted national attention last week after the mother of an East High student with Down syndrome said her son was told that he should not wear a jacket bearing a varsity letter she had purchased.
Currently, East High awards letters to students who participate on the special-needs basketball or soccer teams, but the letter looks different from the one awarded to varsity athletes. The Tri-County letter is a white “E”; the varsity letter is a dark blue “W” with “East” embroidered in white capital letters.
Jolinda Kelley said her son, Michael, has been wearing his varsity letter jacket to school for the past school year without incident. She contacted local media last week, she said, because she supports a district-wide policy that would require Wichita schools to award regular varsity letters to special-needs athletes.
“The issue here isn’t about a letter or a jacket. It’s the policy,” Kelley said. “This would have never happened if there would have been responses to the numerous outreach that I did, trying to get this changed.”
Bryan Wilson, chairman of the Tri-County league, said his board has been working about nine months on eligibility requirements, lettering requirements and other standards and is close to presenting a recommendation to league members in Wichita and other districts that participate.
“Our suggestion is that our athletes receive a letter that looks like a regular athletic letter, but also has something extra on it to signify their participation in this league,” Wilson said.
The league, in its fifth year, fields basketball and soccer teams and plans to add bowling soon, he said. It is operated by a volunteer board.
At Wichita high schools, the awarding of varsity athletic letters is guided by the Greater Wichita Athletic League. The GWAL handbook outlines requirements for earning a varsity letter in various sports.
In basketball, for example, a student must earn 180 varsity points to earn a letter. Players earn seven points for each quarter they play and 20 points for playing in an invitational tournament. If a team wins a state championship, each player earns bonus points – seven points for each quarter of play.
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. The music letter at East, for example, is light blue and in the shape of a lyre.
“Each high school has the discretion to handle this differently, which is vital because our high schools are all different in terms of student body, sports of participation, types of clubs, school traditions,” said district spokeswoman Wendy Johnson.
“Different schools may have different criteria … and that is guided by building decision.”
Wichita school board members are expected to hear from Kelley and other advocates of special-needs children at their regular board meeting at North High School on Monday.
An online petition urging that special-needs athletes earn the same letter as varsity athletes had drawn more than 45,000 signatures by Monday morning.
Wilson, the Tri-County league chairman, said he understands people’s strong feelings about the varsity letter issue because “that letter represents an incredible amount of work and determination on the part of our athletes.”