Michael Kelley is a high school student who has Down Syndrome and autism. He plays extra-curricular special needs basketball, so his family bought him a varsity letter and had it sewed to a school jacket to resemble the jacket the school’s athletes wear. The school’s special needs teams are not regarded as varsity sports.
The school asked Michael to remove the jacket or the letter, since East High’s policies dictate that only varsity teams can wear the letter.
Now Michael’s mother is petitioning the school board to ensure that special needs team members get letters. Public reaction in Wichita is running against the school, which is being painted as cruel and lacking compassion by not letting Michael wear his letter jacket.
Your Ethics Alarm Ethics Quiz this almost spring weekend (March is back to being a lion here in the D.C. area) is this:
Should the school have let the special needs athlete wear his counterfeit letter jacket?
My view is that it depends.
Being pre-biased by my high school experience of having to endure a bunch of strutting, arrogant jerks wearing letters—yes, I wrote a school paper editorial arguing that the chess team (of which I was the captain) should get the same amount of prestige and support and the football team—I find the whole idea of varsity letters ridiculous, and a seed of the warped education priorities that we now see in full bloom during March Madness. From that viewpoint, anyone should be able to wear a letter. That, of course, would make the letter meaningless except as decoration, and end its prestige value.
The reason Michael’s parents gave him the letter, however, is because of its prestige value. In this respect, it is like the “award winning” cheerleading team with the Down Syndrome cheerleader. It’s a fake honor, dripping with kindness, compassion and good intentions, but still fake.
Now the questions become…
1. If the school wants the letters to mean that the wearer is a bona fide athlete who has earned the honor, what does a student wearing a letter because his parents thought one would make him feel good about himself do to that objective? Why won’t other parents do the same? If an autistic child gets a letter, why not obese kids, or members of the math club? Or will the rule be that athletes and autistic Down Syndrome students get letters? Are autism and Down Syndrom to be treated like a sport now?
2. Why should a child wearing a letter that obviously wasn’t awarded for athletic prowess but rather out of kindness bother anyone, especially the parent of an athlete? Does it suggest that athletes are autistic? Isn’t the reason for the letter obvious? It’s the “Awww! Factor”.* Some commenters on the news story observed that the school doesn’t force the girl friends of the athletes to stop wearing the athletes’ letter jackets to proclaim that they are some jock’s main squeeze. Why is that practice any less subversive than letting a Down Syndrome child wear a pretend varsity letter?
3. Are special needs children going to be treated like they are part of the school community like anyone else, subject to the same rules and standards, or is the plan to pretend that they are like everyone else while actually giving them special advantages? If it is the former, then the criteria for wearing a letter should be exactly the same as for any other student, which also means that the student doesn’t get a place on a team by simply showing up. If it is the latter, then why stop at letters? Tell the autistic Down Syndrome child that he’s a valedictorian, a top debater, an artist: let him play Harold Hill in the school production of “The Music Man.” Then hope and pray that for the rest of his life, people keep giving him jobs and recognition whether he qualifies for them or not.
To paraphrase Obi Wan: “The Awww! is strong in this one. “
Someone has posted a petition on Change.org calling on the district to allow Michael Kelley and other students with Down syndrome or other special needs to wear varsity letters for the teams they play on, and has more than 15,000 signatures.
“I plan on presenting my petition at the BOE meeting in Wichita on Monday,” said the petition’s organizer. “I would like at least 10,000 signatures and we have over 6,000 now. I am beyond proud of the response from our Kansas community and surrounding communities! Thank you to everyone who is supporting! #GiveThemLetters”
Also #PutThemInCongress, #MakeThemProfessors, and #MarryThemToTaylorSwift, because life is always like that.
Now East High’s rival’s principal is seeking the Awww! championship (and sticking it to East High) by saying that “We can’t be cookie cutter. We have all kinds of kids with all kinds of different needs and we need to be able to make our rules adjust to meet those needs,” and sending Michael an official varsity letter and with the message: “You can be a part of something anywhere you want to.”
Sure. That’s true. Isn’t it?
Pointer: Jeremy Wiggins
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