Student with Down syndrome, denied a spot on the field, to join other cheerleaders

She loves her school, went to camp to learn the cheers and has the same uniform as the other Calhoun High School cheerleaders. But in the football team's first scrimmage of the season, Grace Key wasn't allowed to stand with the other cheerleaders.

“It just broke my heart,” said Robert Gregory, a 1992 Calhoun High graduate. “It hurt my feelings knowing my school would let that happen.”

From the other side of the fence surrounding the field, Grace cheered. When the Yellow Jackets scored, Grace danced. Grace, who has Down syndrome, is an honorary cheerleader, but wasn’t given the honor of cheering on the sidelines like the other girls.

A video of Grace cheering was posted on Facebook, and her older sister also used the site to post her frustrations. By Monday, thousands of people had watched the video and shared it, and more than 5,000 signed an online petition demanding the school system allow Grace to cheer.

“It’s got the whole town talking,” Gregory said. “It’s made some people furious.”

Grace’s mother, Carrie Key, and Calhoun City Schools Superintendent Michelle Taylor declined to discuss the situation when reached by phone Monday. But the school system announced in an online press release that the matter had been resolved, while still defending its actions.

“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,” the district said. “Calhoun City Schools regrets that any action taken by its programs would contribute to a feeling of exclusion by any of its members.”

Cheerleading coach Ginger Reeves, called “one of the most decorated cheerleading coaches in the state,” is a special education teacher and two-time teacher of the year at the school, the district said.

"Understanding that there are certain limitations of students with special needs, Coach Reeves invited a student with Down syndrome to participate in pre-game activities, which includes cheers, dances and being on the field while the band enters and the football players run through the sign," the district said. "While the student did not meet the try-out qualifications, she has been included as an honorary member of the team. Calhoun City Schools recognizes the unique needs of its students and Grace is no exception."

Tonya Reeves Turner, a former Calhoun cheerleader and coach who recently retired, has volunteered to serve as the honorary cheerleading coach to provide supervision and support for Grace, the school system said.

“Turner feels confident that she can assist in this role, having served as a former cheerleader with a disability,” the district said.

But some in the community felt like Grace should have never been treated differently.

“If they’re gonna let her participate in it, don’t shun her away,” Melanie Ingram said. “What made you change your mind? There’s so much negative in the world. Don’t take this away from her.”

Calhoun students were told Monday not to discuss the situation with reporters. But outside the Calhoun Chick-fil-A, Grace’s classmates wanted to speak up.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Zach Jackson said. “They’re doing her wrong. She’s sweet as she can be. And she loves cheerleading.”

Even before she was a cheerleader, Grace followed along with the cheerleaders at Friday night games, her classmates said. She is also a member of the swim team, has been in school plays, and is involved with clubs. But as a member of the cheer squad, Grace was left out of the photo in football programs and told she couldn’t ride the bus to away games, her sister posted online.

"How cruel to teach someone that they just aren't good enough because they were born different," Cara Key wrote.

Grace is expected to be on the sidelines Friday night when Calhoun hosts Douglass in the first game of the season.