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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — In most ways, the Tri-County League's ceremony was just like any other end-of-season athletic banquet, replete with fond stories of notable performances throughout the year in soccer, basketball and cheerleading.
But there also was something very different about this gathering in the Wichita East High School library, where a dozen athletes with special needs received varsity letters for the first time, The Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/1H2hNLH ) reported.
The debate over whether special-needs athletes at the school should be recognized in the same way as those who compete at the varsity level culminated Thursday in the lunchtime ceremony, ending a campaign that drew national attention to the issue of equity for students with cognitive disabilities.
"It's a good day," said Jolinda Kelley, a Wichita mother who launched the effort. "I'm just so happy for all the kids here today, but especially the seniors."
Her son, Michael Kelley, was a member of the school's special needs basketball program that competed in the Tri-County League, which consists of special-needs students from five Wichita high schools and several area schools.
Earlier this year she bought her son, who has Down syndrome, a varsity letter like the school's other athletes wear.
Kelley said her son was asked to stop wearing the jacket with the letter, prompting her to start pushing for a districtwide policy requiring schools to award varsity athletic letters to students who participate on special-needs teams.
Wichita school district officials have said no one asked the East High School student not to wear the jacket.
In April, the sports league voted to award varsity athletic letters to sophomore, junior and senior members of teams that compete in the league
On Thursday, the library erupted in cheers of "Bruuuuuuuce!" after Wichita East teacher and coach Jason Crippen recounted Bruce Wylie's game-winning shot in the league championship soccer match that gave East the title.
When senior Charles Christenbury walked to the front of the room to receive his Most Valuable Player award, he turned to his teammates and said he loved them all.
Martin Brooks, 19, said he was happy to receive his letter. He also appreciated the Oklahoma City Thunder T-shirt the NBA team sent to the school as a gift for the Tri-County League athletes.
Randall Woolery, whose 18-year-old son, Brandon, played soccer and basketball for East's Tri-County team, said he was moved by the expression in the faces of the students as they received their letters.
"I'm glad they went ahead and passed that deal where they get the letter, too, because these kids have done everything they could," Woolery said.
Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com
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