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MOVING TO THE SAME BEAT

Dressed identically in navy blue T-shirts, teenagers move to a disco rhythm as music reverberates from the gymnasium walls.

A strobe light further blurs their differences as 100 students crowd the dance floor - honor students and school leaders dancing with special-education students during East High School's annual Sadie Hawkins dance.Students also play games, share a pizza dinner served in the school cafeteria and get their portraits taken during the evening. Following the all-school dance, the group returns to the school cafeteria for root-beer floats.

Last Friday was the third annual night out organized by East senior Holly Wheeler.

Wheeler, whose younger brother, Jamie, has Down syndrome, pitched the concept to principal Kay Petersen as a sophomore. "I felt sad. I know my brother doesn't have any friends. He plays in his imagination. I know my parents wish he would get out more," she said.

Wheeler got the idea from a magazine article about a school that included disabled students in a formal dance. "But I thought we should take them to a casual dance."

Initially, some parents perceived Wheeler's plan as malevolent. Once Petersen explained Wheeler's motivation and her own family's situation, parents warmed to the idea. "When I convinced one parent it wasn't a cruel joke, she started to cry," Petersen recalled.

Since then, the event has grown to the point that Wheeler has a waiting list of volunteers, couples who take the disabled students to the dance. "We ran out of kids this year," she said.

To help facilitate the evening's events, Wheeler conducts orientation meetings in her home a few weeks before the dance. "My brother sits in so they get a little taste what it's like," she said.

After the dance, her family hosts a barbecue to thank the student hosts.

The event is organized and run by students, although a few parents help chaperone and Petersen buys the pizza.

"If we (educators) had done this, it wouldn't have worked," said special education teacher Mark Stuckenschneider. "It's very hard to impose this on a school. Now it's become a tradition."

Wheeler's date, Leo Tyler, has agreed to carry on the tradition when Holly graduates in June. "The disabled kids, if they're not shy, they'll love you forever. There's a bond there," said Tyler, a sophomore.

The students with disabilities express their feelings about the evening in their own way. Some are not verbal but respond to the attention with smiles, hugs and gentle caresses.

Amy Ackermann put it this way: "I like the food, but I don't dance that good. I like the friends I have to be with."

Many of the students who volunteer for the activity are well-acquainted with the students with disabilities. Some serve as peer tutors throughout the year. Others have met in seminary or are relatives.

Cathy Wheeler, Holly and Jamie's mother, said the event benefits both school populations, who on this night are one.

"They (the disabled) never get asked anywhere. They never get asked to birthday parties, never, never, never," said Cathy Wheeler.

"I love it because it makes the regular kids more sensitive to this population. It gives the special kids a sense of worth."