Homecoming used to be a night when the most popular students were cheered and recognized for having that special "it" factor. But in a remarkable trend that seems to be catching on in schools across the country, students are using the night to uplift and encourage, embracing students like Danny Leideker, who happens to have autism.
The 18-year-old football team manager, who has Asperger's, a high-functioning type of autism that can make developing friendships difficult, was recently crowned homecoming king at Michigan's Linden High School, according to WJRT.
Four years ago, Leideker was befriended by a small group of his peers, including Eddie Walterhouse, the future captain of Linden's football team.
Walterhouse and the other boys "got inside that autistic bubble and they have been able to develop him and grow him socially and his self confidence to a level my wife and I and the school system could have never accomplished," Danny's dad, Wayne Leideker, said.
When Leideker rejoined his peers in high school, they stuck by him and made him manager of the football team. But Leideker was not the only one to benefit from the relationship, Michigan Live reports. "There's more to life than school and football and he's shown me that," Walterhouse said.
Spectators cheered the new royal court with chants of "We love Danny," but Walterhouse said the crowning ceremony had been nerve-racking. "I was just praying to God that he would get it," he said.
Last September, students at St. Louis Park High in Minnesota made a similarly heartwarming statement when they crowned Jake Hamilton their king.
As a toddler, Hamilton was diagnosed with a form of autism so severe he could communicate only through sign language, KARE 11 reports.
Hamilton's aunt Susan, who adopted the boy as a child, remembers coming to his middle teachers with fears the boy would be bullied. "But Jake doesn't [get bullied]" she said. "We don't know exactly why. Kids really like Jake."
Once the votes were tallied and Jake, the manager of the basketball team, had earned the most votes of any student in the high school, Susan said she never for a second thought it might be some sort of cruel joke.
The example set by teenagers at Linden, St. Louis Park and other schools is one that students at a West Branch, Mich., high school would do well to emulate.
Earlier in September, Ogemaw Heights High School made national headlines after it was discovered that a group of students had nominated an often-bullied sophomore for homecoming queen as a cruel prank.
The story of Whitney Kropp has a happy ending, however. Her community rallied around her, convinced her to go to homecoming and packed the stadium, taking an powerful stand against bullies everywhere.