Pompous Circumstance

Published on June 19, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

graduation cap

This weekend, in high school auditoriums and on lawns across the country, graduation ceremonies will be held to honor those students who have accumulated the necessary credits to receive a diploma.  Families will gather, grandparents will cry, and kids who have gone to school together for years will congratulate one another on a job well done.  Such ceremonies are a time to mark current accomplishments and hope for future successes.

But this joyous occasion is reserved for those without significant disabilities, according to one Vermont Superintendent.

First, some context.  The IDEA provides that students with special education needs are entitled to receive Transition Services to prepare them for adulthood, whether their future includes post-secondary education, employment, or supported living. Transition Services are among the most important services available to students with disabilities. For some students with complex needs, the additional years of special education services to which they are entitled are essential for them to acquire the functional, vocational, and daily living skills necessary for success.

Appropriate Transition Services can literally make or break many student’s opportunity to lead an independent, functional life.

In my Connecticut law office, where my clients are made up entirely of students with special education needs, I am regularly contacted by parents of students who are coming close to their “typical” graduation date, but who believe that their child requires additional special education services before moving on.  In many states, this is another few years of entitlement.

Therefore, when I read about Todd Geraci, an 18 year old with autism who had completed all of the coursework necessary to graduate with his class at his Vermont high school, but who required additional support to acquire the social skills necessary to be exited from special education services, I was not surprised that he wanted to walk with his class, but continue to receive the special education services to which he was is entitled through age 22.  I hear all this request all the time.

What was outrageous about this case (though sadly not unique) was how the school district responded. They would allow him to walk with his class and share in the graduation ceremony...provided he and his parents relinquish his entitlement to ongoing special education services through through age 22.

It is difficult to perceive this situation as anything other than emotional blackmail.

Can you imagine how difficult this choice would be for any family?  Your choice:  either forgo an important “rite of passage,” or forfeit your right to receive additional special education services which are essential to your future.  It is an impossible choice, and one which, thankfully, Todd’s family had the courage to present to a judge, who issued an Order that Todd be permitted to walk with his class without surrendering his civil rights.

Why would a school district take a position which seems so blatantly cruel towards an individual with a severe disability?

The answer is simple:  money.  If a student chooses to walk with her class at graduation, but not to terminate special education services until they “age out” of the system by law, the school district is looking at anywhere from 2 to 4 additional years of support, all of which costs money.  Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just have a policy that participating in the graduation ceremony terminates the obligations of the school district?

I have seen this trick before, and it really infuriates me, in no small part because it preys upon the most severely impaired among our students with disabilities.  Worse still are those cases where the district convinced the student, who is over the age of 18, to receive their diploma, thereby terminating their services, without ever taking the time to explain to them the legal ramifications of this decision.  The student just hears “do you want to be in the graduation ceremony with your classmates?”

Unless the parents have been incredibly vigilant, the student has just lost out on years of special education services to which they otherwise may have been entitled.

Now, the Superintendent in Vermont did not state that the motivating factor behind the decision was to save costs.  Of course not.  Instead, the “reason” proffered was that allowing Todd to walk with his class “increased the likelihood that high school students will assume they don’t have to meet high standards and can participate in the ceremony as well.”

Apparently the administration was not held to these same “high standards”!

One would hope that the Superintendent  would have learned by the time the district ended up in court that Todd HAD MET the requirements of graduation.  He was simply exercising his right to continue working towards his IEP goals.   So, is this Superintendent implying that credits achieved and earned by students with disabilities are less valid than those earned by students who do not have them?

The attitude of this administration towards individuals with special needs was not just evidenced by their actions in this case, but by their words as well.

Superintendent Wrend stated that “graduation at People’s Academy is not a feel-good exercise…it is the formal recognition that students have met the high standards set for them. We want our graduation ceremonies … to have meaning.”  Translation:  if we allow the student with autism to participate in the graduation ceremony, the ceremony is meaningless.  As a professional who has witnessed the incredibly hard work that students with disabilities have to put forth in order to achieve, I find these comments incredibly pompous.

What could be more meaningful than honoring a student who has overcome autism to earn enough credits to graduate from his local high school?

I have to wonder, if the school administration was so concerned about the quality of Todd’s education, and whether the credits he was earning  were legitimate, were these concerns raised at any other time in his education prior to, coincidentally, the moment where the school district could have saved four years of special education costs on him?

I’m guessing not.

3 Responses to Pompous Circumstance

  1. Attorney Anne Eason
    June 20th, 2009 | 7:41 pm

    The discussion about graduation ceremonies and other end of year celebrations should be held several months in advance of June of the student’s 12 grade. In this way, the family has time to file a formal complaint, appeal to the senses of the local board of education, or go to court. These horror stories seem to creep up every year at this time. In some states, like here in CT, the State Department of Education has settled the matter, so students will walk with their class. My own daughter, who has Down syndrome, just finished grade 12 a couple of days ago. She was so gorgeous, in her cap and gown! She was handed a diploma like everyone else, except if you scrutinized her diploma, it says Certificate of Completion, instead of Diploma. In this way she could get 2 more years of services, yet fully participate in all end of year activities.
    Just to mention, this Vermont case you wrote about was actually won in court at the 11th hour and the student was allowed to be a part of the ceremony! Thanks goes to the legal assistance from the disability law project of Vermont Legal Aid in Montpelier and to the family who brought this to court!

  2. Jennifer Laviano
    June 20th, 2009 | 8:14 pm

    Thanks so much for your comment, Anne, and included in this post is the link to the article that chronicles the Injunction ordered by the VT Court. Most importantly, CONGRATULATIONS to your wonderful daughter, who I am sure was as much of an asset to the graduation ceremony as she was to her high school! Best, Jen

  3. Rochelle Dolim
    June 25th, 2009 | 4:21 pm

    In our case, it was the superintendent who said that what they were doing wasn’t working and asked what we’d like next. My response was ‘private education at public expense’