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Did A New Jersey High School Intentionally Exclude Special Needs Students From Its Annual Yearbook?

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Imagine being a student who was intentionally excluded from their school’s annual yearbook. What explanation would suffice for such a decision? Now add one more difficult factor. Imagine you were a student with special needs, and you and all your colleagues in the school’s special education classes were selectively omitted from the annual tribute.

Left Out Of The Yearbook

That experience is one that a student, Glenda, at Watchung Regional High School in New Jersey recently went through. Her sister, Claudia DeFabio, brought the issue to light in a lengthy post on Facebook.

Claudia’s post says that, even though Glenda attended picture day and was never exempted from participation in the yearbook, she was conspicuously absent from its pages. Also absent was every student in the Special Education Department.

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.

Glenda’s mother was also confused. She hadn’t signed anything exempting her daughter from the yearbook and had in fact signed a release permitting her photo to be used. The omission of Glenda and her classmates from the yearbook was a shock to all. According to Claudia, the school did not even contact the affected families to give them the heads up that their children would not find themselves in the pages of the yearbook — no matter how hard they looked. 

The School’s Response

After Claudia’s post went viral, Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett posted a statement to the school’s website committing to conduct an investigation into what occurred. The school, she said, “would never exclude any student from any aspect of Watchung Hills due to a disability, race/ethnicity, or for any other reason.” The superintendent also stated that all special needs students had not been excluded from the yearbook.

The Superintendent’s explanation seemed to raise even more questions. If all special needs students were not omitted, why was Glenda omitted? Was it, as Jewett said, troubling but unintentional? As the school’s fuller explanation was revealed, it became a bit clearer and complicated at the same time.

So, What Happened And Why?

At Watchung Hills, there are special education classes that are grade-specific for students in grades nine through 12. Each special needs student in one of those grade-specific special education classes did appear in the yearbook alongside their classmates just as you and they would expect.

As it turned out Glenda wasn’t in one of those grade-specific special education classes but was, instead, enrolled in a transition program for students aged 21 or older. Because they didn’t have grade-specific peers pictured in the school’s yearbook, they didn’t appear like the other special education students.The question remains, however, why didn’t the school just add a section for the students — like Glenda — in the transition program for older students?

According to the school, that wasn’t done “for legal reasons.” Identifying students as receiving special education services is verboten. In Jewett’s words:

Please also keep in mind that 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.

Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, it seems like Watchung Hills Regional High School was caught between a rock and a hard place. And made it worse for itself and everyone concerned — especially Glenda and her classmates — by not working through the problem in advance. Letting Glenda, her family, and Glenda’s classmates, be shocked by their seemingly intentional absence must have been very hurtful.

Thankfully, communication has improved and a solution appears to be in the works for the present and the future. For this year, Watchtung will distribute a supplemental yearbook, and look into how to include all students in future yearbooks. For her part, Claudia updated her post to acknowledge an apology received from Superintendent Jewett, and to acknowledge the school’s commitment to an interim and future solution.

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