Spread the Word: Inclusion name of the game at Indian River High

DAGSBORO — In the game of life, it’s about respect, inclusion and change for the better.

Students and staff at schools across Delaware March 6 participated in the Spread the Word campaign — a global initiative to unite students in a movement of mutual respect and human dignity for everyone.

An embedded objective is inclusion of individuals – students and adults – with physical and/or mental disabilities.

“It’s to show respect, teach respect and discuss and talk about respect,” said Todd Fuhrman, athletic director/trainer at Indian River High School who was among the facilitators of activities at IRHS.

It was a banner day – actually two days – at IRHS. Students and staff were invited to sign banners in the cafeteria to “pledge to show respect to everyone.”

“We always been inclusion-focused at Indian River,” said Jessica Hudson, Special Education Coordinator at IRHS. “Students here are very accepting of all different disabilities. This event in particular is really a neat event because it acknowledges opportunities for inclusion, that certain words can be hurtful and that the focus needs to be on building one another up.”

Indian River School District board of education member Dr. Heather Statler, the school board’s special education advocacy liaison, visited IRHS and signed the banner during the districtwide celebration of inclusion.

Embracing the initiative

“We have been so fortunate because our district has really embraced the initiative. It’s falls in line so beautifully with what we are doing with so many other special education initiatives,” said Dr. Statler. “We’ve even talked about for Special Education Week coming in October, being able to incorporate some of those same messages that yesterday (Spread the Word Day) was all about – kindness, respect, inclusion.”

Over the past decade, the Spread the Word campaign has shifted from a singular focus to refrain from the hurtful use the R-word (“retard” or “retarded”) to one focused on broader issues of social respect and inclusion.

“Fortunately, nowadays the majority of students already respect all of their peers, but the activities on this one day just reinforces for everyone the importance of treating everyone with respect and the inclusion of all members in school activities and in the local communities,” said Kylie Frazer, Special Olympics Delaware Director of School and Youth Initiatives.

T-shirts provided through Special Olympics Delaware featuring the “Be the Change” theme were prevalent at schools in Sussex County.

At Indian River High School, Spread the Word Day accentuated the school’s year-round commitment to inclusion.

IRHS, among the approximate 4,000 Unified Champion Schools nationwide, offered Unified Basketball this year.

In Unified sports, athletes with disabilities are paired with a “traditional” student/athlete. “It’s a combination of our Unified athletes and our Unified partners,” Mr. Fuhrman said.

Unified Basketball was a huge success in its rookie year, reaching the state semifinals where Caesar Rodney emerged victorious.

“That was a big deal,” Mr. Fuhrman said. “Our group with the kids has been awesome. The kids have been included. They are really enjoying it. We are looking forward to next season. It has just been a great experience. It’s not mandatory to do it. We just asked, and they all wanted to participate.”

“The Unified Basketball this year has been such a popular sport, because it really is all about that message of inclusion and respect, helping others and being part of something that maybe students would be reluctant to have to do,” said Dr. Statler “It has opened up communication for our students I think in a whole new way.”

Dr. Statler added a March 18 banquet is planned to celebrate the Unified Basketball team’s accomplishment.

Track was the first Unified sport at IRHS. The high school hopes to add a third sport, flag football, this fall. “The state now has Unified Flag Football and we are looking into that possibility in the future,” said Mr. Fuhrman.

“We always have so many students who volunteer, who step up and want to be a part of this,” Ms. Hudson said. “It’s really nice to see in this age where you hear so many negative things about teenagers, about cyberbullying and that kind of thing, whereas what we are witnessing is people wanting to be part of this, wanting to be helpful, wanting to bridge some of those gaps that they have in other places.”

“I think that it is one of the key things that will help us sustain this effort. If we can implement the Unified Flag Football in the fall, then we will have sports events that are happening all year long that are reminding students of the importance of this message,” said Dr. Statler. “That is a constant reminder, constant communication and information going out to students about how important this is. It really has become a lifestyle of respect and kindness that will serve them well beyond when they leave our high school doors to move into adulthood. To me that is a win.”

“We have a high school that wants to be really involved in special education and promoting that inclusion aspect for all students,” Dr. Statler added.

The inclusion game continues.

“Every other the year we rotate – us and Sussex Central — hosting the Howard T. Ennis student/staff game, which we are hosting this year,” said Mr. Fuhrman. “So, it’s another part, and our entire student body is invited to come down during certain times to watch and participate. It’s just a great event.”

“They have done a lot of research about programs and how to implement them effectively. I give a lot of credit to Mr. Fuhrman because he really took the lead on this. I think they would like to be eventually recognized as a premier high school for Unified sports. I don’t know of any others that have that title or recognition in the state of Delaware,” said Dr. Statler. “I think that is what the Unified teams really showcase, that these kids have a lot of talents and abilities that 40 years ago we didn’t take the time to recognize, let alone celebrate. So, we have come a long way thank goodness in special education.”

IRHS also a big supporter of and participant in inclusion programs through Blue/Gold football and basketball.

“We also have our group that is part of the state of Delaware’s Special Olympics leadership group,” Mr. Fuhrman said.

This spring, Ms. Hudson’s daughter, Alyssa, a special needs student at Indian River High School, will be one of the managers for the girls’ soccer program. Alyssa was a manager in the fall for IRHS boys’ soccer.

“So, it also works in reverse,” said Ms. Hudson. “Not only do our students with disabilities have their special teams where our typical students pitch in and help them, but we also have that exchange where some of our special needs students are able find ways for them to participate in other events as well.”

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