Student With Down Syndrome Told By Faculty He Cannot Wear Varsity Letter Jacket

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Michael Kelley
Michael Kelley

In yet another example of insensitive, zero-tolerance approaches, school faculty members of Wichita East High in Wichita, Kansas reportedly compelled a special needs student athlete having both Down syndrome and autism to remove a varsity letter his mother bought for him. He was given instead a girl’s sweater to wear.

School officials stated he could not wear the varsity letter because he was not a member of the varsity team. Apparently they were forced to act upon this transgression because “one parent complained” and therefore no exception could be made for this student.

Nineteen year old Michael Kelley participates in extra-curricular basketball. His family bought him a varsity letter similar to what other students at the high school wear as a tribute to honor his athletic achievements.

Michael’s mother, Jolinda Kelley, says her adopted son is one of a kind and loves to play basketball. When Michael was recognized by the school for participating in the special needs team, she bought a varsity letter and sewed it to his jacket. She was shocked to learn he was asked by the school to take off the jacket.

The letter of the law seems to apply strictly to varsity letters.

Wichita East High School Principal Ken Thiessen in an interview with KSN news: “Teachers told the parents they would prefer he not wear the letter on his jacket.”

When asked if the school would consider giving a varsity letter to special needs students he replied:

Principal Ken Thiessen


“We have considered it, and our decision was no. We decided that is not appropriate in our situation because it is not a varsity level competition.”

KSN discovered this was not a district-wide policy. The high school seemed to be acting on its own accord.

Jolinda says she understands each school can make the rules, but she wants to see a change.

michael-kelley-and-other-student“It’s not just my son. It’s every student that was out there last night. It’s every student that’s there on Fridays that plays their hardest and to the best of their capability regardless what that is.”

The question remains as to why a varsity letter is such a hallowed emblem that it cannot be tarnished by having someone wearing one who is not a member of the athletic club. Free speech issues aside, how about showing some compassion or at least looking the other way? It is doubtful the majority of students themselves would act with such rigidity to Michael’s choice to wear a letterman jacket.

But if rules must be followed regarding uniforms those with special needs cannot participate in the Police Chief / Sheriff For a Day programs because those kids are not true law enforcement officers.

Chief for a Day

Now that this has hit the national news media, the administration of Wichita East High School will soon be tempest-tossed by the media storm on the horizon.

By Darren Smith


KSN News
Detroit Free Press, Photo Credit

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

134 thoughts on “Student With Down Syndrome Told By Faculty He Cannot Wear Varsity Letter Jacket”

  1. How very exceptional of the fractions of human beings comprising the faculty at Wichita East High in Wichita, Kansas, who were responsible for stripping student Michael Kelley’s varsity letter.

    As a sign of good student/sportsmen ship all other athletes attending Wichita East High should strip off their varsity scarlet letters and support Michael Kelley against the cretins who operate under the guise of high school faculty.

  2. Gosh, I feel terrible, but I must say that I don’t think the child deserved to letter in basketball. One of the reasons special students are mainstreamed is to be treated as all the other children in the school. They must comply with rules, policies, and procedures–like everyone else. We cannot use our emotions for a special needs person and not for everyone else.

    I know all schools are different, but as far as I can remember, in order to EARN a letter in sports, most athlete’s had to play the sport for a certain length of time and prove themselves in the sport including sportsmanship and ability.

    It would have been a nicer jester–if each one of the athlete’s would have let Michael Keeley wear their letterman jacket for a day, or week, until school was out. This would have been an act of love and been beneficial for all.

    In the future, I hope that the school district will consider on a means to have a school sweater or jacket for special needs players on school teams.

    Meanwhile, stop blaming schools and principals for everything, and please stop being an angry parent who is too over protective.

    1. I think you are right on reflection G – I think that a special sweater with a special letter would suffice and the parents could be adult about it

  3. Reminds me of my nephew’s graduation in Napa, CA. some years ago. Every kid in the class was named as the valedictorian and given a framed certificate. They didn’t want to hurt the self-esteem of the kids who weren’t as smart, or who didn’t try as hard, or who weren’t all that interested in academics, so they gave everybody the award. All the mamas were so proud!

  4. “Pogo. …Sports isn’t a requirement for success or for being a decent human being.
    Which addresses an argument no one ever made.

    “Is there a reason you feel the need to use the word retarded?
    It is the correct word.

  5. Our guide dog pal took a box to the Post Office to mail off to the perp Principal out there in Kansas. The pal answered all the questions correctly because they never asked if the box had dog poop in it but the clerk smelled it. So then we took it to Federal Express and paid more money but its on the way.

  6. Pogo hears a Who

    I never argued otherwise. In fact, I stated it would be wise for the school to create a path of merit for mainstreamed retarded and other special needs in order to letter.


    Is there a reason you feel the need to use the word retarded?

  7. Pogo, there are large percentages of young people who do not engage in team sports and they grow up to do quite well in their lives. Sports isn’t a requirement for success or for being a decent human being.

  8. As far as I’m concerned, a person living with Downs syndrome and autism, especially in a country where there is such ignorance and misinformation about developmental disabilities and mental health issues, deserves a Nobel prize for courage. I hope this young man gets 100 letters. He sure gets one from me!

  9. “The meaning of the letter for athletic achievement is in no way altered for the worse by giving one to an achiever in special games.

    I never argued otherwise. In fact, I stated it would be wise for the school to create a path of merit for mainstreamed retarded and other special needs in order to letter.

    That, rather than just buying a letter and wearing it, which is the subject at hand.

    “When someone says that they will venture to guess…
    Then why say it, if it is based on nothing at all? What’s the point?

    “You might try stepping back and taking a look at this situation as it really is, the way most people seem to think it is
    As it really is?
    You mean why don’t I see the world as you do?
    Where did you get the idea that’s how the situation “really is”?

  10. I couldn’t find an email address for this principal. According to the website of the high school, you have to dial certain numbers to contact staff members according to the first letter of their last name. The number for the principal is 316-973-7236. I plan to call and leave a message. Maybe if they get enough bad publicity, they will let this outstanding young man wear his letter again.

  11. Pogo

    When someone says that they will venture to guess, it is just that a guess, not mind reading. You need to chill out and take the time to smell the flowers and read thoroughly. Also the worst arguments are the ones that include taking one side to and exaggerated point to attempt to control the planes of comparison. Of course Michael Kelley getting a letter is in no way comparable to receiving the Nobel prize. You might try stepping back and taking a look at this situation as it really is, the way most people seem to think it is, instead of supporting an automatic contrarian response. They work in some cases but not this one. The meaning of the letter for athletic achievement is in no way altered for the worse by giving one to an achiever in special games.

  12. The story made the Washington Post and other major newspapers. The comments, for the most part, seem to place the complaining parent and the principal in a bad light. Other schools are sending Michael Kelly jackets with letters in support. It seems that Michael Kelly is an accomplished athlete in his own right. It is good to see right win out from time to time.

  13. Now, even a rival high school’s principal is reaching out. Mark Calvin, principal and athletic director at nearby Santana High School, is speaking out in support of Michael.

    “Before he got the letter he was one of the biggest cheerleaders in the school. It was incredible, after he got the letter jacket it just sky rocketed him to another level,” Calvin said.

    “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,” he added.

    Mark Calvin made another important gesture for Michael Kelley, sending the boy with Down syndrome an official varsity letter and an important message: “You can be a part of something anywhere you want to.”

  14. Another long term positive effect of mainstreaming is that it gives other kids the chance to learn empathy, compassion, and friendship with special needs kids. When those kids are kept separate through special classes, and special sports teams, they become isolated from the other kids. Those other kids never learn how to stick up for a special needs student or be their friend.

    What a great lesson in sportsmanship for teammates to have a special needs member. We hear so often about teasing and bullying. It warms my heart to hear about students across the nation rallying to Michael.

  15. SJ Reidhead – that’s a great story about Simon, and the longterm positive effects of mainstreaming these kids.

  16. Young Mr. Kelley does not know it yet, but he will be awarded a varsity letter from Indiana Area High School in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his fellow athletes hustled over the weekend to gain the appropriate approvals and willing co-operation of the Indiana High Athletic Department. I imagine this won’t be the first letter he receives, nor the last. It’s a telling thing when kids half a continent away can recognize the right thing to do, but the adults who know the individuals in question are clueless and callous. It is not as if the family was demanding the young man participate in an awards assembly and receive the same acknowledgement as varsity athletes–he just wanted to wear a letter.

  17. I am just sick over this. So, one parent complains and the principal has to act on it. How many athletes get high school diplomas that they haven´t earned? Parents put teachers under a lot of pressure to give athletes the grade point average needed to play on sports teams. A lot of kids playing probably don´t really have the required C averages and are therefore not really eligible to play on the team and as a result didn´t really earn their varsity letters either.

    1. Riesling – Creighton University, a fine Jesuit university, graduated a basketball player who could not read or write. They were stand up enough that when they found out they paid for the remediation and then gave him his college education again. 🙂

  18. That is to say why not give him all of those things? Why have any awards for anything?

    Nothing means anything.

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