Last night, Monday, Jan. 9, I was shocked to view the WLOS – TV news report about a “hazing”/bullying incident of basketball manager, Will Poolaw, at Cherokee High School. The alleged actions by the Cherokee Central School System employees against this Special Olympics NC athlete were shameful, embarrassing and downright cruel. For adults whose job it is to be role models, trusted leaders, teachers and mentors to our young people, this incident is unacceptable.
Will Poolaw is a hard working and loyal volunteer of the Cherokee High School athletic department and has been for well over 10 years. On numerous occasions he has missed Special Olympics competition opportunities for himself simply to fulfill his duties to the team. In 2010, he was honored for his service to the CHS athletic department and the following words were said about him, “His unconditional love and caring for the players and coaches of CHS have been unmatched by any other. Words that describe this young man include drive, determination, sacrifice, and an undying support of his beloved Braves.”
The fact that this outrageous incident was committed against an individual with intellectual disabilities makes it that much more offensive. People with intellectual disabilities strive to be respected and accepted within their communities every day. It’s important we take this shameful incident and learn from it. Special Olympics is working tirelessly to educate people about the talents, skills and gifts people with intellectual disabilities possess. Through a nationwide initiative called Project UNIFY, Special Olympics is encouraging students to become “agents of change” so they can make their schools a more tolerant and inclusive environment for people with intellectual disabilities. The response in North Carolina has been tremendous with more than 100 schools involved. The “Spread the Word to the End the Word” campaign has also been very instrumental in getting people to pledge not to use the hurtful word “retard(ed)” and to curb bullying. The occurrence at CHS clearly indicates much, much more work needs to be done.
I sent a letter reacting to the incident to WLOS- ABC 13 and the local newspapers in Cherokee containing the sentiments relayed in this blog post. Other media outlets around the state are beginning to pick up on this story as well, many of them have also received our reaction letter.
We hope the Cherokee Tribal Council, Cherokee Central School Board, members of the local community and the students and faculty at Cherokee High School will condemn the actions of these five Cherokee Central School System employees. Our hope is Will Poolaw can resume his much-loved role within the CHS athletic department and that Cherokee High School will participate in both the Special Olympics Project UNIFY and “Spread the Word to End the Word” initiatives in order to better cultivate a more inclusive and respectful school atmosphere.
Update: On Thursday night, Jan. 12, WLOS broadcast a report that Cherokee leaders had issued an apology to Will Poolaw and his family. The once suspended coaches and administrators involved the incident were being reinstated to their jobs, disciplined and would be mandated to undergo sensitivity training.