Girl with Down syndrome named honorary cheerleader amid controversy

Calhoun (Ga.) cheerleading coach Ginger Reeves (right) named Grace Key (center) an honorary cheerleader. She will be coached by volunteer Tonya Reeves (left). (Calhoun City Schools/Facebook)

Calhoun (Ga.) cheerleading coach Ginger Reeves (right) named Grace Key (center) an honorary cheerleader. She will be coached by volunteer Tonya Reeves (left). (Calhoun City Schools/Facebook)

All Grace Key wanted was to be a part of Calhoun (Ga.) High’s cheerleading squad.

Born with Down syndrome, Key already participated on the school’s swim team, and she worked all summer with Calhoun’s cheer squad in preparation for the upcoming season. But when the football team took the field for last week’s scrimmage against Northwest Whitfield (Tunnel Hill, Ga.), Key was not among her teammates.

“After spending her summer going to practices and learning all the different cheers, someone decided it would be an issue to have Grace on the field cheering with everyone else,” said Key’s sister Cara on Facebook. “Anyone that knows Grace, knows she is completely competent, and for someone to not allow her on the field is ridiculous. She stayed outside the fence separate from everyone else the entire game yesterday wondering why she wasn’t allowed to cheer on the field like all of her friends. People with Down syndrome have feelings, and yesterday Grace’s feelings were hurt.”

Indeed, a viral video posted on social media showed Key in uniform dancing behind Calhoun’s cheerleading squad, separated by a fence. The video received more than 175,000 views and stirred controversy in Calhoun. According to her sister, Key was also not included in the team photo and not allowed to travel on the team bus. A petition titled “Let Grace Cheer” received more than 5,000 signatures in three days.

To their credit, Calhoun City Schools officials met with Key’s parents, Dan and Carrie, and the two sides found common ground, announcing in a joint statement that Grace was named an honorary cheerleader. She will participate in “cheers, dances and being on the field while the band enters and the football players run through the sign.” Calhoun is scheduled to open the season at home against Douglass (Atlanta, Ga.) on Friday night.

“In light of recent social media posts, it became apparent that concerns regarding the inclusion of students at extracurricular activities is something that required extra attention,” CCS said in the statement. “Calhoun City Schools regrets that any action taken by its programs would contribute to a feeling of exclusion by any of its members. Inclusion is always the goal when developing programs for all students. Once made aware of the concerns raised in this particular situation, administration worked with the parents to schedule a meeting in order to find an immediate resolution.”

The school district credited Calhoun cheerleading coach Ginger Reeves — a six-time Coach of the Year who has led the Yellow Jackets to six state titles and also serves as a special education teacher at the high school — for including Key on the team. Additionally, the recently retired Tonya Reeves Turner, who overcame a disability to become a Calhoun cheerleader and coach, volunteered to serve as Key’s honorary cheerleading coach.

“I am a Calhoun native. I graduated from CHS and my parents both graduated from CHS. I love the Yellow Jackets,” Grace’s mother Carrie Key added in the joint statement. “Grace’s teammates on the cheer squad are wonderful and accepting and are very special to Grace. We appreciate the support of Calhoun City Schools. Today’s meeting is an example of how we can work together to reach a mutually beneficial decision in the best interest of all students. In advocating for Grace, my hope is to advocate for all exceptional students.”

Grace Key’s reaction, according to her sister Tanna: “No, you’re making that up,” followed by a giant smile.

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