Archive for Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Free State High School removes barrier to students with disability being part of homecoming court

September 7, 2010


Free State homecoming voting

Students at Free State High School brought to the administrators' attention a rule that didn't allow students with severe disabilities to be eligible for homecoming court. The rule has since been changed to include all students.

LHS process

At Lawrence High School, students nominate seniors to serve on Homecoming Court. Each nominee then is asked whether he or she actually wants to appear on the ballot, to be distributed to fellow seniors for voting.

Administrators also check to see that nominees are students in “good standing,” Principal Matt Brungardt said, and that goes for all seniors.

Nominees become members of the court by receiving enough votes from seniors, before a second election is conducted to determine homecoming king and queen.

Free State High School is expanding its homecoming royalty this year, after a handful of seniors with disabilities had been excluded from the initial round of balloting — a practice that’s been going on for at least a decade.

Among students originally left out this year: Owen Phariss, a senior with Down syndrome, whose friends had lobbied classmates to vote for him only to discover that Phariss had been denied a spot on the ballot.

Free State High School seniors, from left, Audrey Hughes, Bailey Knowlton and Connor Caldwell were instrumental in a petition drive to get some students added to the Homecoming Court ballot. Knowlton holds one of the signed petitions Tuesday at Free State.

Free State High School seniors, from left, Audrey Hughes, Bailey Knowlton and Connor Caldwell were instrumental in a petition drive to get some students added to the Homecoming Court ballot. Knowlton holds one of the signed petitions Tuesday at Free State.

Now — after senior school administrators were alerted about policies against discrimination — all seniors will be given another chance to vote today. They’ll seat another four girls and four boys on the Homecoming Court, joining the eight girls and eight boys who already received the most votes in last week’s nominating election.

“Anybody with a disability wasn’t included,” said Nancy Holmes, Phariss’ mother. “It’s very disturbing. In this day and age, it’s very disturbing.”

Homecoming is Oct. 1, when the Firebirds play Shawnee Mission East.

Wednesday’s additional balloting will come after students had started a petition drive, one that collected at least 800 signatures backing the belief that “ALL seniors should have an equal opportunity” to be on the Homecoming Court.

Student-driven change

Four students led the drive: Connor Caldwell, Aly Frydman, Audrey Hughes and Bailey Knowlton. All are friends of Phariss, and each found themselves shocked and disappointed that Phariss hadn’t been included on the original ballot.

Even more disturbing: At least four other students, and as many as nine, also had been excluded, and all are students with severe disabilities.

Even more worrisome: Whoever started the practice did so years ago, well ahead of current students enrolling on campus and even before many staffers had shown up for work on Overland Drive, where the school opened in 1997.

“They probably thought it’d be a joke, that there might be deals with wheelchairs and other stuff like that,” said Knowlton, who has known Phariss since kindergarten. “But they’re such great kids. I would do anything for them. And you have to look at a child for just who they are, and not just for their disability.”

Ed West, in his third year as principal at Free State, said that he, too, was “shocked and disappointed” when he learned about the practice, which he had been unaware of until notified by Knowlton and others late last week.

On Tuesday, West said that he didn’t spend much time thinking about what had happened, “or even investigating why or where or when.” Instead, he focused on correcting the problem immediately.

Students with disabilities no longer will be excluded from eligibility for the Homecoming Court, a group whose election is overseen by Student Council.

“I really don’t know who put the ballot together,” West said. “I know it wasn’t the student group or some of the adult leaders or whatnot. The people who were doing that were just doing what had always been done, and just didn’t take the time to question it and ask if it was still a way that we wanted to move.

“And, obviously, it isn’t.”

Real-life lessons

And that’s all thanks to the concerted efforts, West said, of Knowlton and other students in and aligned with Free State’s new Interpersonal Skills course, a social studies class that brings together general- and special-education students to learn about social awareness and other topics.

“This outcome is much more about what Free State stands for,” West said. “I’m embarrassed that Free State ever had this past practice, but I’m so excited about the process that brought this needed change to happen. It’s exactly what we want.”

Andrew Nussbaum, who teaches the course along with Darrell Andrew, noted that students made the difference on their own: Identifying the problem, and finding an “inclusive, compassionate” solution.

“It’s a great teaching moment of positive cultural change,” Nussbaum said.

Hughes, who has known Phariss since ninth grade, can’t wait for today’s second vote — and for the future balloting that will determine which members of the expanded court will welcome coronation.

“(Phariss) definitely will, hands down,” Hughes said. “He will be king.”

Holmes is just pleased that her son and others with disabilities no longer will face limited opportunities in regard to Homecoming Court and related activities.

“It’s the way it should have been, the way it should have always been,” Holmes said. “It should have never come up.”


nascar 7 years, 9 months ago

Yes, Mr. West, I would say this is quite embarrassing. Wow! Thanks to the students who shined the light on this "practice" and were not deterred. Perhaps it would be in the best interest of all adults involved to look into the practices put in place during Dr. Snyder's employment.

ProudDad 7 years, 9 months ago

"I believe that children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way!"

somedude20 7 years, 9 months ago

your a fan of sexual chocolate as well? nice!

KSManimal 7 years, 9 months ago

Having known this school intimately since its opening day......I was shocked to learn that this practice occurred....ever...,..let alone for well over a decade.

This is what happens when irrational fear is the basis of decision-making. And that it went on so long..... This is what happens when leadership works hard to keep everyone in the dark as much as possible.

I'm so glad there is new leadership at Free State.

And I am proud of our community's youth who stood up and changed things.

Dixie Jones 7 years, 9 months ago

My hats off to the students who took control and stood up for their friends. Free State parents should be proud of these kids for the kind hearts they have. YOU guys ROCK !

rse1979 7 years, 9 months ago

These students obviously can't handle open lunches.....they might hurt themselves.

Laurie Martin-Frydman 7 years, 9 months ago

I'm proud of the leadership shown by Aly, Audrey, Connor, and Bailey in the successful effort to change Free State's policy, and, for that matter, I'm also proud of the other 800 students who supported the cause by signing petitions. You made a powerful case, the administration listened and responded by changing the policy, and now, thanks to your activism, the world is a better place for a few of the people in it. Nice!

sandersen 7 years, 9 months ago


I am so very proud of the strong, empathetic, capable leader you have become! I am sure your mom and dad are very, very proud of your determination, along with your friends, and the students who moved this change forward.

Having seen how well you always treated all of my children, including my autistic son, I can definitely say your character shines through, and this courageous effort was no surprise to me.

I know having the support and advice of your mom, who has spent her life helping change the lives of children with disabilities, was invaluable to you, so I shout, "Kudos to you Suzanne!!! Job well done!"

Keep up the passion for rectifying injustice and making change happen. You have a promising future ahead!

kusp8 7 years, 9 months ago

Kudos to the's refreshing to hear a positive news story in today's culture

Diana Lee 7 years, 9 months ago

Good kids! It's always nice to hear about teens doing something really positive, isn't it?

Paul R Getto 7 years, 9 months ago

Good job. They are learning in their American History and American Government classes.

anonyname 7 years, 9 months ago

The principal said he doesn't know who put the ballot together. I can believe that he hadn't been aware of the procedure; he wasn't there at the school's opening, and the leader of a school with over a thousand students has many things on his plate. He then says it wasn't the student group, and it wasn't "some of the adult leaders." Was it frogs in the science lab? Mystery meat in the cafeteria come to life? The reporter was able to find out that the election was overseen by the Student Council. I credit him with fixing the problem immediately, but you can't fix the nominating procedure without learning about the nominating procedure.

We can definitely be proud of the students who took action. Their generation is much more accepting of differences in disability, ethnicity, or sexual orientation than that of their parents or grandparents. If we don't do irrevocable damage first, the world will be a better place when they're in charge.

Bob Forer 7 years, 9 months ago

Couldn't have said it better, anonyname.

ForThePeople 7 years, 9 months ago

Ditto to what "sanderson" said! Bailley and her friends are an inspiration to all! Her efforts reflect upon what wonderful parents she has, and the awesome job they've done instilling values that will benefit her as well as everyone she comes into contact with throughout her life. Great job Bailley!

matt22 7 years, 9 months ago

As a former teacher of Audrey's I can attest to the fact that she has been very encouraging and uplifting to all students with disabilities that she has come into contact with. I am very proud of her, Bailey and the others who made this possible. I know for a fact that Audrey's compassion is genuine as I have witnessed her interactions with Owen for the last 3+ years.

Mike Hatch 7 years, 9 months ago

I don't know why they had to put together a petition and all...once this practice was discovered, why not just let the powers that be know about it so they could have eliminated it maybe a little quicker?

YesItsMe 7 years, 9 months ago

Wow, you had to be petitioned not to discriminate, way to go Freestate! Was it just your natural instinct to discriminate against the disabled? You disgust me. I hope the SME Lancers rain on your homecoming parade.

Did the administration really think it was ok to deny poor Owen the chance to be the king? Nobody besides the students thought that was a little weird? Again you disgust me.

MyName 7 years, 9 months ago

Okay, so what about the group of kids who put someone up on the ballot as a joke so they could have the chance to make fun of his or her "campaign" for a whole week? I think this scenario is probably the root of the policy, rather than some kind of institutionalized discrimination.

Some people forget that teenagers can be sweet, or can have a refined sense of cruelty.

rgh 7 years, 9 months ago

It's my guess that all anyone had to do was to speak with the principal and it would have changed immediately. It's not something they deal with year in and year out typically. Glad it got changed though.

mom_of_three 7 years, 9 months ago

While I applaud the students for their actions, I am wondering why it happened in the first place 10 years ago. I think maybe some administrator was trying to prevent a disabled student being nominated as a cruel joke and trying to prevent hurt feelings (We know how cruel some students could be, nominating someone less popular or smart or whatever, just to taunt and tease them). And the rule was never looked at again, which doesn't look good for the past administration.

Mike Hatch 7 years, 9 months ago

The same thought crossed thru my mind too (remembering the movie Carrie).

rhd99 7 years, 9 months ago

The level of stupidity demonstrated by schools like Free State make me wonder if school administrators know what they're doing. It also makes me very suspicious that these administrators show a LACK of respect towards seniors when denying the seniors an open lunch period. What are you afraid of, administrators? Are ya all CHICKEN? People make mistakes, but when this has happened for 10 YEARS, it only shows that certain administrators need to be FIRED!

Gadmi 7 years, 9 months ago

Actually it is quite surprising that the homecoming king/queen tradition still exists. It is quite outdated and really proves nothing other than some sort of a weak popularity contest. It has absolutely no educational or extracurricular value. Homecoming festivities are a great tradition in welcoming alumni and celebrating school pride. However, the voting of a King/Queen is an arrogant process that serves no one.

sweetiepie 7 years, 9 months ago

It's not really clear to me how this policy kept being enforced. "Someone" had to be taking these students' names off the list every year--including this year. "Someone" perpetuated this policy. I can actually understand the administrators not really knowing anything about this, but "Someone" knew.

sustainabilitysister 7 years, 9 months ago

Way to go FREESTATE!!! Thank you students for making this change. I too am shocked that this practice was still in tact. Very sad. I wonder if Lawrence High has the same practice.

mom_of_three 7 years, 9 months ago

according to what is above, LHS policy is different

Andrew Boyd 7 years, 9 months ago

as a alum of free state i never even knew this policy was there. im glad to hear that it is gone now though. good job students

bearded_gnome 7 years, 9 months ago

Hey LJW!!!! here's a story idea since maybe you didn't think of it: 1. who/why was the original discriminatory policy put in place? 2. were there indeed other students eliminated from the voting process in previous years on the basis of disabilities?

I am angry about this!

now, you teens you apparently have more courage and sense of right than your elders the loser administrators at your high school! congratulations. please continue during your lives to work to right wrongs. please continue to organize, speak up, and shake up the status quo. inform yourselves and work for a strong free society that protects individual rights.
if you do not stand up for others, then who will stand up when they come for you? our individual rights are under attack now much more than ever.

you teens are excellent examples. congratulations. go forth and have lives of success and strong values.

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