Bill would let learning disabled go to graduation

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tracy Ritter loves what the Jackson School District does for her learning-disabled daughter.

But she has one issue with the district's policies -- her daughter Kaitlyn won't have enough credits to walk through graduation with the class of 2010.

While Ritter is working to change the district's policy, she has also asked state Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, to file a measure directing districts across the state to make room for disabled students in the graduation ceremonies of the class they entered school with. Jackson schools require students to be within one credit hour of completing their studies to participate in the graduation ceremony.

She said she's not asking for favors, such as a diploma her daughter has not earned. But she said giving Kaitlyn, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, the honor of going through the ceremony with her peers would give her daughter an emotional boost.

Laws governing the education of children with learning disabilities requires districts to provide help until they are 21 years old. Ritter said she expects her daughter will, with an extra year or two, complete the graduation requirements.

"I was very discouraged when I found out that they didn't make an exception," Ritter said. "They say they have to have a policy that is fair and the same for all students across the board and that is the policy they have in place for graduation."

Lipke, who is calling the bill he is preparing "Kaitlyn's Law," said his research shows similar bills have passed in Illinois and Pennsylvania. The measure can be carefully written to only apply to students with learning disabilities and not create a loophole for students who are lagging in their studies, he said.

When Ritter contacted him, Lipke said he told her "it seems like a no-brainer to me. So I've got it being drafted right now."

Assistant superintendent Dr. Beth Emmendorfer said she has talked with Ritter several times about the issue and that the district will abide by its current policy.

"We have to implement a policy with consistency and uniformity," she said.

However, she said the district will look at whether the policy should be changed.

Even if the district changes its policy to accommodate disabled students, Ritter said the legislation should move forward. "They have been a leader in the area of disabilities," she said. "I hope they will take a step out ahead of the legislation."

Other bills

The bill Lipke intends to file is one of three he is filing to address issues for families of children with special needs. The other two have grown in part out of Lipke and his wife Ashley's experience with their youngest daughter Kate's treatments for a heart defect.

Kate was born Sept. 19, 2007, and needed surgery six days later. She is doing well now, Lipke said.

To help with huge medical expenses, Lipke is proposing to make families that exceed the lifetime benefits limit on health insurance eligible to join the Missouri Health Insurance Pool. That program currently provides up to $1 million total coverage for people who cannot find insurance elsewhere.

Lipke wants to double the limit to $2 million and limit the premiums, which are higher than regular insurance, to 50 percent of the standard amount for families earning less than 350 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, the federal poverty limit is $21,200 a year.

While Lipke is not approaching the limit on his family's insurance, he said the change will provide a safety net for people facing massive bills. "Until you are there, it is hard to appreciate the difficulties families face," he said. "I talked to parents, and my eyes were opened tremendously."

That also why Lipke is pushing for a fund to help parents who must travel 100 or more miles to obtain care for a child with a severe illness that requires prolonged treatments. Named the "Evan de Mello Reimbursement Program" after a boy of 4 who died from the same defect his daughter had, the program would provide help for fuel, food and lodging for parents to stay near their sick child.

The program would have an income limit.

Hospital lounges aren't conducive to the kind of rest parents need when they are watching over a severely sick child, Lipke said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

388-3642

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