Should Wichita high schools award regular varsity letters to students who participate on a specialneeds basketball or soccer team?
East High School senior Libby Hastings thinks so.
So far an online petition she started at Change.org has drawn more than 27,000 signatures and will be presented to Wichita school board members Monday.
“They practice like we do. They work hard like we do. … I just feel like they deserve the same recognition,” said Hastings, who earned her varsity letter in soccer at East.
Hastings, 18, started the petition after a report on KSN-TV said a teacher at East High had told parents of a boy with Down syndrome that he should not wear a jacket bearing a varsity letter the parents had purchased.
The story drew international attention and has prompted supporters of special-needs children to lobby East High and the Wichita district to reconsider its policies.
Currently, students who participate on the special-needs basketball team are awarded a letter, but one that looks different than the one for varsity athletes.
Similarly, students lettering in fine arts programs, JROTC or student leadership can earn letters, but they also are different from varsity letters.
East High principal Ken Thiessen said Saturday that 19-year-old Michael Kelley, “was never told to remove his jacket.”
“The incident, if you call it that, happened more than a year ago,” Thiessen said.
A teacher told Kelley’s mother, Jolinda Kelley, that he probably shouldn’t wear an East High varsity letter because he had not participated on a varsity team.
Since then, organizers of the TriCounty League, which includes teams of special-needs athletes from Sedgwick, Butler and Harvey Counties, has been exploring its policy regarding letters, Thiessen said.
Jolinda Kelley could not be reached for comment early Saturday but planned to answer questions from media at a special event Saturday afternoon.
“This is an important conversation for special needs students and athletes throughout the nation, and we are grateful for the opportunity to have our voices heard,” Kelley said in an emailed statement.