Yesterday, we reported on a sad situation in which a Special Education student named Glenda DeFabio from Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey, was excluded from the yearbook. Her sister, Amanda Occhipinti, had initially taken to Facebook to share 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.”
While we exclusively talked to Amanda- as well as spoke with Elizabeth Jewett, the superintendent of the school, a new statement from the superintendent was released last night.
In an article from Tap Into, Elizabeth was quoted as saying the following:
“All of our students who receive special education support services from our district (approximately 16% of our total student body of approximately 1900 students) are part of our student learning community in the same manner as our students who do not receive special education support services.”
While the first part of her statement didn’t address the yearbook, the second did- and it almost seemed to offer a defense/explicit explanation as to why Glenda (and some other Special Education students) may have been left out of the yearbook.
“With regard to the yearbook,” Elizabeth said, “the individual portraits of our students, whether they receive special education support services or not, appear in their respective class section – 9th, 10th, 11th or 12th grade (given that they sat for a yearbook photo which not all students do). Some of our students who receive special education support services are entitled to services through the age of 21 and participate in our transition program once they complete their 12th-grade year.”
“While these students may appear throughout the yearbook in club and candid photos,” she added, “they do not appear in the 9th-12th grade section of individual student portraits. Please also keep in mind that as per student privacy laws, we are not permitted to publicly identify students as receiving special education services, in our yearbook or elsewhere. This is why we have not included a section with portraits of our transition program students up to this point. However, we are revisiting this and are considering doing so in the future for parents of students who would like this option and will grant permission for us to do so.”
We reached out to Amanda again to get her thoughts on the superintendent’s latest statement and, amongst other things, we were saddened to learn that Amanda revealed the superintendent had yet to reach out to her family.
“We appreciate that the superintendent is looking into rectifying the situation so we can move forward with a positive change, as that is our family’s desired outcome,” Amanda began with sharing. “Glenda and all of the students in her program and programs alike should be given the opportunity to be represented just [like] the other students.” “Please note, my family has yet to personally hear from the superintendent,” she continued sharing.
She then specifically responded to Elizabeth’s claims about the “privacy laws,” telling us that “Moreover, regarding her position, the exclusion of the students in the yearbook can’t be an accidental oversight as well as an intentional omission because of their privacy. My parents signed a media release so that Glenda could be featured in the yearbook and other school publications.”
“I cannot speak on how the superintendent feels,” she added. “We can acknowledge her public apology and we appreciate her efforts in wanting to investigate the situation. However, we want to recognize her contradictory position that Glenda’s and her classmates’ omission from the yearbook was either an intentional omission due to legal reasons or an unintentional oversight. Amanda’s family has had some administrators reach out, though, as she shared that “There are administrators such as the Principal and Director of Special Services who directly spoke to my mother. They are truly concerned about Glenda’s hurt feelings. They graciously and genuinely apologized saying it was an oversight and changes will be made going forward. It’s a positive outcome for future yearbook publications.”
Amanda went on to share that her family has a mission they hope to accomplish by sharing Glenda’s experience, explaining that “Our goal will always be to advocate for inclusion and representation of all students and our hope is that other school districts will also make the necessary change.”
“We are part of the Watching Hills community, our journey continues with Glenda,” Amanda wrapped with sharing. “We look forward to her 2021 graduation and associated activities!”