Virginia Beach rallies behind teen fighting for inclusivity, exposes statewide issues

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This article was published on WTKR by Erin Miller on February 11, 2021.

Whether you like tossing the football or cheering from the sidelines, every student should have the opportunity to participate on their school’s sports team.

However, the results of a two-year study on K-12 Special Education in Virginia by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) show that families believe their kids with disabilities are left out of extracurricular activities.

It’s a concern now being acknowledged across the Virginia Department of Education and in a memo released by the State’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, James Lane.

Ellie Berrett, a Virginia Beach senior, experienced a personal connection with JLARC’s findings when her friend Tia tried out to be a cheerleader at Cox High School.

Family and friends said that Tia is “fun, full of school spirit, easy to get along with and loves cheerleading. She doesn’t let the stigma around Down syndrome hold her back from living life to the fullest.”

The now-freshman spent the last few years cheering at Great Neck Middle School. Family told News 3’s Erin Miller that Tia started as a manager and participated full-time in practice, dressed for games and rooted for the other girls from the sidelines when competitions came.

With time and opportunity to model the behavior, movements, words and routines of the other cheerleaders, Tia made co-captain by her final year in middle school and was awarded the School Spirit Award.

When she became a freshman, she hoped the transition to a new team would be easy.

Berrett said, “She’s wanted to be included on the team for some time, and her family has been trying for that inclusion to happen over the course of a year. For me, being a mentor and tutor to Tia really showed me the lack of inclusivity for kids with special needs in our public schools.”

According to Tia’s family, they were told that Tia “must score the same qualifying numbers as her non-disabled peers to make the team because [they] do competition cheer. But holding Tia to the same standards as her non-disabled peers without any realistic accommodations being made for her inclusion is just wrong.”

Upset by what she was witnessing, Berrett took action and created an online petition to get Tia on the team. In just days, she surpassed her goal of 5,000 signatures, all in support of Tia.

“I was extremely overwhelmed by the amount of responses,” she said.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools also responded. As schools and sports programs open in a limited capacity because of COVID-19, districts must also figure out how to still meet federal inclusion mandates. In this case, that’s where Tia’s family said part of the disagreement lies.

In a full statement to News 3, they said,

We have recently met with the principal and asst. principal from Frank W. Cox High School. We had an open and honest discussion about our daughter and more broadly the 2-year study by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission citing concern over Virginia schools’ inclusion of children with disabilities in extracurricular activities.

As we all know, Covid has complicated things and there appears to be honest disagreement about whether Covid restrictions preempt Federal mandates of inclusion as sports open in a limited fashion. Fair-minded and well-intentioned people can disagree because it is complicated.

Still, we are happy to report that the school is committed to providing the best experience for our daughter and all the children who attend Cox HS. We are further pleased to report the cheer coach has offered to open a School Spirit club as a supplement to cheer for the spring semester and that everyone from the coach to the principal are hard at work to implement creative ways to be more inclusive while Covid remains a public safety concern for us all.

Lastly, we are aware of a petition circulated on our daughter’s behalf. Ellie Berrett was instrumental in that success and brought needed awareness and power to these issues. We are thankful to her and those who supported her effort. It is inspiring to see the next generation’s commitment to making the world a better place for us all.

Tia’s mom & dad

After communicating with Tia’s family, Cox High School offered to create a School Spirit Club. In a statement to News 3, Dr. Mike Kelly wrote,

The idea was in development by our cheer coach even before cheer tryouts, as a way to involve more students in school, especially in the spring season when there is no cheer team. As a teacher of our Adaptive Academic Foundations students, Bailee Adams (cheer coach) continually strives to find ways to involve her special needs students with the greater school population. Though the school already has a robust offering of activities for all students, like the Buddies helping Buddies program WTKR covered last year, we are always looking to find new and creative ways to get students involved in our school community outside of the classroom.

With the elimination of JV squads due to COVID this year, unfortunately the number of students able to participate has been significantly reduced. With that noted, however, it is important to emphasize that all students who want to participate have been encouraged to try out for all sports teams, and no student has been denied access to these opportunities.

Berrett said she was just thankful that something positive happened when she tried to help her friend. She said, “Now that I see the impact that it’s had on not only Tia but the community as a whole, I hope for it to create positive change in my city, my state and all throughout.”

Click here for the recommendations from JLARC to the Virginia Department of Education.