It’s one of the most exciting times of the school year for many students—the day you get your yearbook and look through it to find all the photos of yourself and your friends. The day you have all your favorite people sign their names and write well wishes and do the same for them.
Now imagine paying for a yearbook and finding out you’re not even in it. That’s exactly what happened to Glenda DeFabio, a student with Down Syndrome at Watchung Hills Regional High School.
Glenda was excited to get her yearbook and quickly flipped through it looking for herself. But her photo was nowhere to be found. When Glenda realized she wasn’t in the book at all, her mother began looking for photos of other special needs students in the same program as Glenda. And she couldn’t find them either.
That’s right. The entire Learning and Language Disabilities (LLD) program and all the people in it had been omitted from the school yearbook.
Glenda is the youngest of five siblings, and they naturally felt her pain at not being pictured in the yearbook. Two of her sisters posted about it on Facebook, and it has now been shared thousands of times. Many of the comments demand answers—why were Glenda and her classmates left out of their own yearbook?
“Glenda grew up going to all of our games, football games, homecoming, we all played sports,” Claudia DeFabio says. “She was so overjoyed to go to Watchung Hills, telling everyone she’s a student there. We just want her to feel she’s acknowledged the same as her four siblings were.”
“Glenda is our sister, not ‘our sister with Down syndrome,’ so we treat her as a member of our family and hope the yearbook can do the same,” says Amanda Occhipinti. “She’s so happy and we’re so happy that people are embracing and loving her like we love her, but at the end of the day she’s still sad her picture isn’t in the yearbook.”
The school was quick to apologize, citing “legal reasons” for the omission of the special needs students. It seems the decision was made in order to protect the students’ privacy.
The LLD program is a transitional program that provides support for students with learning and language difficulties through the age of 21. Glenda, for example, is 20. She will graduate next year but is not part of the junior class. Because these students are older than traditional students and not considered to be in any particular grade, they were not pictured with the 9th through 12th-grade students.
The LLD program would have been given their own separate LLD section, except that the school is not legally allowed to do that, as it violates the students’ right to privacy regarding their disabilities.
According to Superintendent Elizabeth C. Jewett, the school’s 9th- through 12th-grade special education students are pictured in the yearbook. The only students left out were those in the LLD program, because they are not classified as belonging to a particular grade level.
“This is troubling and certainly was not intentional,” Jewett says. “The district would never exclude any students from any aspect of Watchung Hills due to a disability, race/ethnicity, or for any other reason….While these students may appear throughout the yearbook in club photos and candid photos, they do not appear in the 9th-12th grade section of individual student portraits. 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.”
Still, critics say the LLD students should have been included in the yearbook, even if it meant simply grouping them with the seniors or placing them with whatever grade corresponds to their graduation year.
Jewett and Glenda’s mother have “had a thoughtful, hopeful, and gracious conversation” on the matter, and Jewett said the school is now revisiting their decision and trying to find a way to include its transition students in the yearbook without encountering legal issues. They may even consider adding a section for transition students in the future, as long as parents grant their permission.
Jewett says no other students were purposely omitted from this year’s yearbook, although some school clubs were left out because the yearbook club failed to get pictures of them. The school is looking into purchasing a supplement to be added to the current yearbooks.
Glenda’s siblings are surprised at how far her story has traveled and hope that it can be a positive force for change in other schools. Check out the video below to learn more.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?