Yesterday, a shocking post surfaced on Facebook regarding Watchung Hills Regional High School, a high-performing New Jersey that is ranked #2281 in the entire country.
Referring to special ed students’ inclusion in the yearbook, the post, from a woman named Amanda Occhipinti, read the following:
“Today, my younger sister received her high school yearbook from Watchung Hills Regional High School and was not listed as a student. She didn’t miss picture day or ask for her picture not to be included, she was intentionally left out, as were the remainder of the special education students.
While the faculty and staff who teach her and her classmates every day were acknowledged, Glenda was not. Everyone in the special education department was acknowledged: except the students. She was not given the same thought and respect that other students immediately received. There wasn’t even the mention of her name in the Index.
Imagine the heartbreak my mother felt having to explain to my sister why she wasn’t in the yearbook. And Glenda not being able to understand how she was seen as different than her general education classmates.
My mother did not sign anything refusing for Glenda to be represented in the yearbook, she actually signed a media release for the school to share photos of her as a student. But this wasn’t a privacy issue, because the parents were not consulted about this decision before the books were printed.
It is inexcusable that Watchung Hills printed a yearbook that specifically excludes the special needs students without any thought. How can a school that praises itself for being upstanding and inclusive defend their blatant discrimination towards a marginalized group of students?
There is no excuse. This action violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which are both federal rulings that protect individuals with disabilities from discrimination. And as if that weren’t enough, by strategically leaving out students with special needs, Watchung Hills is cherry-picking the image they want to portray to the world.
Individuals with special needs often cannot advocate for themselves, and subsequently, get overlooked. I am speaking out for Glenda and every other student who was cast aside merely due to differences in ability. Silence is compliance.
And finally, since the 2,500+ students and faculty didn’t get the honor of seeing Glenda’s yearbook photo, at least the internet can.”
She included the photo her sister had taken for her yearbook with her post.
With everything going on in the world, we were completely stunned that a school district would allow for this to go on.
We reached out to Elizabeth Jewett, the superintendent of the school.
Her initial response was the following:
“The statement below is being sent to our entire learning community as well as posted on our district website.
Dear WHRHS Learning Community,
The District learned today that one or more of our pupils was left out of our high school yearbook. This is troubling and certainly was not intentional. The District would never exclude any students from any aspect of Watchung Hills due to a disability, race/ethnicity, or for any other reason. The social media post alleging that the pupil at issue and special needs students in general were excluded from the yearbook is simply incorrect. As a District, we actively seek to foster a culture that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion. We deeply regret that the student mentioned in the post was not pictured in our yearbook and we apologize to her and her family for this omission. We are investigating what occurred and are currently looking to see if any other unintentional omissions were made. We will do our best to rectify the situation. Lastly, we intend to carefully review our processes to avoid any erroneous omissions in the future.”
When pressed for more information, she specifically stated that it was “absolutely incorrect” that Special Education students were not included in the yearbook.
Then, when asked to provide proof of this, she detailed that “As I am sure you can appreciate, pupil confidentiality laws prohibit me from identifying which pupils receive special education services from the District. However, suffice it to say that special needs students are included in this year’s yearbook.”
We also asked what was going to be done to rectify the situation, to which she explained that “In terms of rectifying the situation for the student at issue and any other students who may have been left out (something we are investigating), we will consult with our yearbook company to see what can be done. I do not have a clear understanding at this point as to why the student as issue was not included.”
After speaking with the superintendent, I reached out to Amanda (who had originally posted about her sister). She had a different story to tell, claiming that “others [Special Education students] were [left out of the yearbook].”
“This is an issue of technicality,” Amanda went on to explain. “The students with special needs who were in general education classes and identified with a specific grade were included in the yearbook. The remainder of the Special Ed students who were not classified with a grade were not given the same acknowledgment as other students.”
“Further, a source from the Special Services Department told my Mom directly that the students who identify with a grade are included in the yearbook and those who do not are only included in the senior page during their graduating year at Watchung Hills,” she added. “Our sources are absolutely correct, they came from Watchung Hills itself.”
“Our main objective when reaching out to the school was for them to acknowledge, apologize, and rectify the situation,” Amanda elaborated. “As this was Glenda’s first year at Watchung Hills, she was excited to see her picture in the yearbook. Also please note that Glenda will be graduating from Watchung Hills in 2021.”
And what about what the superintendent had told us?
To this, Amanda said “My mom has a call scheduled with the principal tomorrow. We have not had any correspondence with the superintendent. Any statements from the superintendent are unrelated to our direct correspondence to the school and are her opinion based on social media posts.”
It seems the school did end up coming to a resolution, as Amanda took to Facebook to update her post, detailing that “My parents have heard back from the school saying and they are going send out a supplemental yearbook that is inclusive of all the students as well as consult with the yearbook committee to ensure that all students will be represented going forward. Thank you everyone who shared, reacted, commented, and took action on behalf of Glenda and her peers. Please continue to advocate for those without a voice, it really makes a difference. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with advocacy and a flood of support (keep in mind it’s only been three hours!!).”
Interestingly, this is not the first scandal that Watchung Hills Regional High School has had as of late. In the latter part of last year, it was revealed that Sean DiGiovanna, a 50-year-old Social Studies teacher (who was also a union rep at one point during his career) had been charged with endangering the welfare of a child and promoting obscene material to a child.
Specifically, a report from My Central Jersey at the time detailed that the Warren Township Police Department had received a report on September 11, 2019, that alleged Sean had sent “sexually-explicit images of himself to a juvenile student.” The report also claimed that Sean allegedly “wanted to pursue a sexual relationship” with the juvenile student and had told him this in “electronic messages.” He was arrested on October 10th for the charges, after his phone was examined and found to contain the images and messages.
Also, back in 2018, the high school was involved in a student cheating scandal that a report at the time claimed could involve “hundreds” of “higher level” students “doing the cheating.” Elizabeth Jewett (the superintendent we spoke to) did note, at the time, that there were instances of “academic dishonesty.” The report also noted that “no action was taken” in regard to the cheating.
It is interesting that all of these scandals keep occurring in such a high performing high school. It could lead one to question what is going on from the top leadership down and if changes need to be reconsidered.