The two photos of Utah’s Shoreline Junior High cheerleading team were nearly identical — a group of girls in blue-and-white uniforms, matching pom-poms in hand, all smiling at the camera.
But there is a crucial difference between the images, and it has sparked widespread backlash in the school community and online: In one of the photos, the team manager, a 14-year-old with Down syndrome, is included. In the other photo — the one that made it into the yearbook — she is not.
The conspicuous exclusion was not lost on Morgyn Arnold, who was “devastated” to find she wasn’t in the yearbook photo with her beloved cheer team, her sister, Jordyn Poll, told the Salt Lake Tribune.
The family isn’t interested in placing blame, Morgyn’s father, Jeff Arnold, told BuzzFeed News. But the experience has been difficult for his daughter.
Bringing home the yearbook was a highlight of her school year, he said. When she discovered she had been left out of the photo, she didn’t want to look at it anymore.
“I said, ‘Morgyn, how are you, okay? How do you feel?’” Arnold said. “She said, ‘I'm sad, but those are my friends.’”
He added that he hopes Morgyn’s story starts more conversations about inclusion, and not just for people with special needs.
“We're all unique and special in our own aspect,” Arnold said. “How do we ensure that we're more mindful for everybody? I know there were other people besides Morgyn who experienced the same thing, because they reached out to us ... but their kids aren't any less important than Morgyn [just] because people have rallied around her. I think that this is just a reminder that ... being mindful and intentional of everybody is what's important. And when we can’t, how do we be better?”
The Davis School District has apologized to the family and is taking steps to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future, according to district spokesperson Shauna Lund.
“We are deeply saddened by the mistake that was made. We are continuing to look at what has occurred and why it occurred,” Lund said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Apologies have been made to the family and we sincerely apologize to others impacted by this error. We will continue to address it with the parents of the student. We will continue to look at our processes to ensure this does not happen again.”
It’s unclear who made the call to leave Morgyn out of the photo and why, but Arnold told Buzzfeed News that in his experience, it has been “fairly typical” to include team managers in yearbook photos. Maddie Campbell, a 15-year-old member of the team, told the New York Times she could not recall whether it was the team adviser or the photographer who had Morgyn step away for a few of the photos. Maddie also said she did not know if any reason was given for the move, but she remembered finding it odd.
The team was “heartbroken” to see that Morgyn wasn’t in the final yearbook picture, Maddie added. “Watching her cheer would always make me so happy,” she said.
Disability rights advocates told BuzzFeed News they found Morgyn’s story disheartening but not all that surprising.
“It’s always a disappointment, but at the same time, I look at it as an opportunity to get these stories out there so people become more aware of the importance that everyone has an opportunity,” said Dorian Packard, the Special Olympics global adviser for cheerleading. “Just because you have a diagnosis of some sort, it doesn’t define who you are.”
Nate Crippes, a staff attorney with Utah’s Disability Law Center, said he hoped there was no malicious intent behind the exclusion.
“My honest hope is that this was some type of honest mistake and nobody was intentionally trying to exclude a person with a disability from being a member of the team in a photograph in the yearbook,” Crippes told BuzzFeed News. “But with that said, they took two photos … and it is a little bit concerning that they felt the need to do that and then choose the one that didn’t have the person with the disability.”
Rick Rodgers, the founder of ParaCheer International CIO, an organization for cheerleaders with disabilities, said that with the right training and resources, schools can make sports like cheerleading accessible to all students — including ones with disabilities.
“It’s clearly untrue that because she has Down syndrome, she can’t be a cheerleader. There are world champions now with conditions like Down syndrome,” Rodgers said. “The problem that’s stopping her from being a cheerleader is not her Down syndrome — it’s the adaptability of the coach, the understanding of society, and the school board not making those changes.”
But this kind of change can take time, Arnold said. He added that while some of the conversations surrounding the incident have been encouraging, too much blowback has unfairly focused on Morgyn’s cheer teammates.
“If all of us are not mindful of that, change will never, ever happen, so I've been asked a hundred times, ‘What's happened?’ and ‘What do you want?’” he said. “All I want is a dialogue, and I want it to be respectful. I want it to be empathetic, and I want it to be directed at how do we improve with love and generosity.”