School Board Considers Policy Change for Participation in Graduation Ceremony

by Barbara O’Brien

The Windham School Board is considering changes to the high school graduation policy relating to the annual commencement ceremony.  The first reading of the proposed policy was held on April 16.  Two more readings are scheduled to be held prior to board members voting on the issue.

The proposed changes would mostly affect special education students, those who have an individual education plan (IEP).  Some of these students take more than the traditional four years to complete their high school education, causing variations in when they will graduate.  Some of these students’ parents are concerned that their children cannot graduate with their peers, the same students that they have been attending classes with since first grade.  Such an occurrence has a very negative effect on these young people, parents told school board members, making them feel isolated and left out of the celebration.

According to the proposed change, “Students receiving special education services, who are pursuing a standard diploma, shall be eligible to participate in one graduation ceremony (and related activities) in the year determined most appropriate by the student’s IEP team.”  “This issue should be addressed through the individual student’s IEP,” one parent of a special education student told school board members.  “The student (and parents) should not have to go before the school board.”

Based on the policy, “Any student, parent and/or guardian, who wish to pursue an exemption of the graduation requirements, must present a written request for an exemption of said policy directly to the Windham School Board.  The request must include statements describing the unique circumstances relative to the specific case.  The request for exemption must be filed with the office of the superintendent and or a school board member no later than the last day of the first semester, in the year in which the appellant intends to participate in graduation.”

School board Vice-Chairman Stephanie Wimmer pointed out that “anybody can appeal anything to the school board at any time.”  “Is this policy even necessary?” she asked Interim Superintendent Henry LaBranche.  LaBranche replied that he believes the issue is clarified by putting it in writing.  Another parent of a special education student, who was denied participation in a previous graduation ceremony, said, “No, no, no!  I was not told [by the high school administration] that we could appeal the decision to the school board.”

LaBranche expressed concern about how to allow waivers for special education students without discriminating against “non-disabled students.”  According to the existing policy, “All students, regardless of disability, must earn the credits required and satisfy other academic requirements for graduation as established by the school board in order to receive a Windham High School diploma and be eligible for participation in graduation.”

Tina McCoy, who has served as Windham’s Director of Special Education Services for the past nine years, was extremely supportive of the students that she oversees.  “Students with disabilities are as diverse as any other group,” McCoy stated.  “Every student is different.  Every situation is different.”  “  But, it’s a bigger picture,” McCoy continued.  “Other students [aside from those in the special education program] may also have a valid reason to request a waiver” [to be allowed to participate in graduation activities at the appropriate time].  McCoy cited the possibility of students in the regular education program having serious illnesses or accidents and needing to request a waiver from the school board to participate in graduation activities in the year they were scheduled to graduate.  “The policy should apply to all students.  All students should have the same opportunities,” McCoy emphasized.

The next reading of the proposed graduation participation policy will be held prior to the end of the current school year, LaBranche said.  In the meantime, school board member Jerome Rekart said, “We need to perform due diligence.”  If the proposal does garner school board approval, it would not take effect until the 2013-2014 school year, which begins on July 1.  In the meantime, the existing policy remains in effect, LaBranche said.