Monday, March 30, 2015

Beyond the Letter -- Inclusion and Varsity Letters

In the last few days, a news story on varsity lettering and inclusion in a local high school has been the top trending topic in Wichita, Kansas.  While focused on the education sector, this presents an opportunity for us in the church to re-examine our own inclusion practices. 

  • Are we including all students in our churches?  
  • What church traditions which were once progressive, now serve as barriers for full inclusion?
  • How can we welcome those with hidden disabilities?
  • What church systems are in place which make it harder for our families with disabilities to engage in meaningful worship and discipleship?  How can we remove those?

For more information on inclusive church practices, please check out Key Ministries' Inclusion Fusion web archives.  A number of Christian disability ministries are also available to help you transform your church into an inclusive community which celebrates every unique ability God has provided.

For those looking for my public comment presented at the 30 March 2015 Wichita USD 259 Board of Education meeting, the text and a pdf file is provided below.




My nearly teenage daughter has Down syndrome.  When we moved into Kansas five years ago, we met with special education officials to discuss our daughter’s specific needs.  Because of their helpfulness, we opted to purchase a house in the Northwest high school area.  Over the years, I have had positive interactions with many special educators, volunteers, and others who have helped our daughter progress.  I would like to thank the district for being attentive to our needs in the past and hope they hear our communities concerns for the future.

Recent news stories have revealed an opportunity for the greater Wichita community to embrace the special needs students who are often present, yet ignored or not included in our society.  Inclusion is about social capital, maintaining a sense of belonging, and developing meaningful relationships with peers. 

As a varsity high school letter holder myself, I am grateful those with special needs who enjoy sports have an outlet provided to show their school pride.  They are as much of an athlete as the East High state championship basketball team we are proud of and the Shockers we root for.  Yet so is the tuba player in the marching band practicing on a hot field 3 hours a day, or any number of other students who put in extra hours in clubs and while representing their school.  My question is this – what is the purpose of a letter?  Is it not to indicate accomplishment and express school pride?

I also understand we have a large city, comprised of younger and older schools, all with their own traditions – which is why local building policy is often a good thing – it allows us to celebrate our diversity.  Some schools have letters for KSHAA approved sports and allow clubs to design their own.  Other sites use one letter for all sports and clubs.  I have been informed, letters had already been approved and are in the design phase for the Tri-County special needs league (comprised of numerous schools from several districts) this year and were to be presented at the end of the season.  These processes take some time, but seek to be fair to all.

Are any of these policies intrinsically wrong?  -- Only if the letter is used as a marker to promote exclusion.  If this is the case, then absolutely, there must be a district wide policy.  If not, I am fairly confident that our student stakeholders, as evidenced by the online petition we see, would come to the same conclusion – because we’ve done a good job of educating them.

I would suggest that the board of education encourage local buildings to put together a task force of all stakeholders, students, teachers, and administrators involved in all lettering activities and re-examine any lettering or dress code policies which do not equally treat students who demonstrate school spirit.

Whichever decision this board makes on the lettering issue, will it automatically address all our inclusion issues?  Probably not.  We haven’t even begun to address our medically fragile students who expend more physical effort just getting dressed every morning. The frenzy that has surrounded this topic will move on to the next bit of sensationalist reporting.  As a parent, I have observed that it is easier for students, educators, and the community at large to like something on Facebook, rally for a local cause, yet never take true action. 
  • For every student that signed this petition – have you sat down at a lunch table, or attended a game, or become a friend of a person with special needs outside of class?
  • For every educator that “leaves their work” at school, have you sought to include persons with disabilities in your own neighborhood?
  • For every member of the public who rallies here tonight, have you sought inclusion in your work site-- because our high school graduates need a place to earn a living and co-workers to hang out with.
  • For our legislators who say “give the letter”, have you not recognized that slashing the educational budget actually makes it much harder to create environments of inclusion and will hurt our special needs students?

It’s time to take this conversation beyond the letter.


Rev. Marvin J. Miller
Parent Member, KSDE Special Education Advocacy Council (SEAC) – District 10

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this letter are mine and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency or organization with which I am associated.

Beyond the Letter (pdf)