This article was published on The Salt Lake Tribune by Courtney Tanner on June 16, 2021.
The cheerleading squad at Shoreline Junior High took two official team portraits this year.
The first photo included Morgyn Arnold, a 14-year-old student with Down syndrome who’d been working as the cheer team manager and knew all the routines by heart. The second photo included all the other girls, but was taken without Arnold, who was noticeably missing from her spot in the front row.
And it was that second picture without her that the school used on social media and in the yearbook.
Jordyn Poll, Arnold’s older sister, said Arnold was heartbroken when she flipped through the pages and saw she wasn’t included with the rest of her teammates. Her name wasn’t even mentioned.
Poll believes the decision was made because of Arnold’s disability.
“Morgyn is very intelligent,” Poll told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday. “She knew what happened. She was sad, and she was hurt.”
In public posts on Facebook and Instagram, where the incident first gained attention, Poll noted, too, that Arnold “spent hours learning dances, showing up to games, and cheering on her school and friends but was left out. I hope that no one ever has to experience the heartbreak that comes when the person they love comes home from school devastated and shows them that they’re not in the picture with their team.”
Poll shared both of the photos on her page for comparison, showing the spot where Arnold was sitting in her team T-shirt and the other one with the 26 other girls filling in the space with their blue and white pompoms in the picture that the school published. In a post that has since been shared by more than 7,000 people, she questions why a separate photo was even taken without Arnold in the first place.
She says the school made the call to “deliberately choose to be exclusive.”
“It’s the SAME cheer team — SAME girls, SAME photo shoot, SAME poses, but one included all team members and one did not,” Poll wrote. “A choice was made on which photo to submit.”
Poll said this is the second time in three years that her sister has been left out of the yearbook. Two years ago, the school failed to include Arnold in the class list.
“Our intention in sharing the story was just to raise awareness so we could all learn to be a little better,” she said.
Shoreline Junior High has since posted an apology on its Facebook page for the cheerleading photo.
“We are deeply saddened by the mistake that was made that omitted a student photo out of the yearbook,” it notes. “Apologies have been made to the family, and we sincerely apologize to all others impacted by this error. We are continuing to look at what has occurred, and to improve our practice.”
Davis School District put out a similar statement, additionally noting: “We are continuing to look at what has occurred and why it occurred. … We will continue to look at our processes to ensure this does not happen again.”
Poll said that’s not the response her family initially got when they first contacted the school’s administrators. She said an employee there “blatantly said they didn’t know what we were expecting of them and there was nothing they could do.”
She called the answer “as ignorant as the photo.” And she called on the school and district to improve, especially with how it interacts with and includes students with disabilities.
“You can be better,” she said, “and I expect you to be better.”
She said Wednesday that they have contacted the family again and are working “to make the situation right.”
Since the post has drawn significant attention on social media, many have said the school district should do more — like reprint the yearbook or print a special insert for students with Arnold’s picture. And they’ve flooded the Shoreline Junior High post with comments.
One person wrote: “It’s not a mistake when this is the second year it’s happened. It’s not a mistake when there were two separate photos taken.”
Others started the hashtag “#TeamMorgyn.” Some commented about how Arnold brightened up the team photo. One woman noted: “Morgyn, you are beautiful!” A second wrote, “Deliberate and also jawdroppingly foolish, since the photo with her in it is roughly 10 to 12 times cooler than the one without her.”
Many parents with kids with Down syndrome joined in, too. In a tweet that’s gone viral, one father posted: “I can’t count the number of times our son has been excluded, or nearly excluded, from events and pictures and related social activities in his eight years of school. I know this fury.”
A few also questioned the other girls on the cheer squad. Poll later updated her post defending them, saying they had nothing to do with the photos.
“Please stop shaming them,” she said. “They were kind, inclusive, and they are Morgyn’s friends.”
She said it’s important to push for change, but she urged people to “be kind in the process.”
She told The Tribune, too, that she was saddened to see that reaction. Her sister has only repeated, “I love them,” when asked about the other girls.
“Those girls are nothing less than amazing,” Poll said. “They love Morgyn. They have done everything to help her and make her feel included. They have feelings, too.”
The team’s parents also put out a statement Thursday asking for the “shaming, bullying and threats” against the girls to stop. They said the cheerleaders had no part in the decision over which photo to use.
Poll wants people to focus on how to stop exclusion like this from happening in the future. “I think that’s a positive way to move forward,” she said.
Her sister, she added, doesn’t want to talk about the situation but has decided to forgive those involved. “Morgyn is the most forgiving person,” Poll said. “We can all just try to follow her example.”
Nate Crippes, a staff attorney at the Disability Law Center of Utah, said Wednesday that this type of exclusion happens often in schools across the state. The center receives about 4,000 complaints each year.
“That’s just one of the many things people with disabilities face — stigma and being too often excluded from things,” he said.
All districts, he said, can work to improve, adding more accommodations, being more intentional and thinking about inclusion first.
Crippes pointed to concerns about students with disabilities being separated into other classrooms without their peers, an issue that caused concern in Jordan School District this year. Other times, there’s name calling. Sometimes, students aren’t allowed on a team or in a club.
If the photo selection at Shoreline High was intentional, Crippes added, it’s along the same lines and “highly troubling.”
“I just don’t see a reason not to use the photo with the full team,” he said. “It seems obvious that they took a photo that included her. Somebody made the choice not to use it.”
In her post, Poll pointed out that first page of the yearbook included this quote: “I don’t care how insignificant you think you are, one person can absolutely make a difference.”
She encouraged people to take that to heart and fight for visibility — literally — for those with disabilities, including in photos.
“Please, be the one person whose actions are inclusive,” Poll wrote. “Be the person who stands up for what’s right and makes a difference. Teach those around you, kids and adults, to look around and see the Morgyns being sidelined.”
She said that her sister will be in ninth grade at Shoreline Junior High next year. She hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to be the cheer manager again.
Even if she doesn’t, Poll said, Arnold “will always find ways to continue cheering on her friends and her school. Morgyn looks for ways to cheer on everyone around her.”
Editor’s note: Those with concerns about discrimination against those with disabilities in the classroom can file a complaint with the Disability Law Center of Utah by visiting its website at disabilitylawcenter.org/contact or by calling 800-662-9080. Parents can also submit concerns to the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which handles concerns about race, gender, sex, age, ethnicity and disabilities at ocrcas.ed.gov.