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

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.

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.”