Bill allows learning disabled teens to take part in graduation ceremonies

Sunday, May 10, 2009
After getting her hair done, Kaitlyn Thompson gets a manicure Saturday at J.C. Penney in preparation for her prom. Kaitlyn and her mother, Traci Ritter, worked with Rep. Scott Lipke on a bill allowing students with learning disabilities to walk with other students at graduation. (Elizabeth Dodd)

Kaitlyn Thompson and her cousin Megan Bomar spent Saturday morning getting their hair and nails done to prepare for the Jackson prom.

"Me and Kaitlyn have done everything together since we were little," Bomar said. "I always thought graduation would be one of them."

Thanks to a bill that recently passed the Missouri Legislature, Thompson will be able to participate in another high school tradition with her cousin next year -- graduation.

Thompson and her mother, Traci Ritter, worked with Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, to create a bill allowing students with disabilities to participate in graduation activities. House Bill 236 cleared the state legislature Tuesday and is awaiting a signature by the governor.

The policy, which Lipke named Kaitlyn's Law, allows students with disabilities to participate in graduation provided they have completed four years of high school and are making progress toward their individualized education plan.

Because she is on a specialized plan that includes instruction past her senior year, Thompson could not participate in senior-year activities with her classmates, according to district policy.

"I wouldn't have gotten to walk with my cousin and best friend," said Thompson, a junior at Jackson High School.

Passing the bill

Thompson, who has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, said her cousin was a source of support during the process, which included a statement to the House Education Committee. Thompson said her cousin encouraged her to speak at the committee hearing and practiced with her at the hotel the night before.

"I don't think I could have done it without her there," she said.

Lipke said Thompson's testimony had an effect on other representatives.

"That can be intimidating for anyone, not to mention someone in high school," he said.

Ritter said she was shocked to find out earlier in the school year that students with disabilities could not participate in graduation if they intend to continue to receive services from the school district after their senior year. Under federal law, students with disabilities are eligible to receive instruction from the district until they turn 21.

"Receiving those services is going to have a big impact on her later on," Ritter said.

Ritter said she had to make a choice between giving her daughter the traditions of her senior year and continuing her education with the district.

"That's a tough spot for a parent," she said.

Reaching graduation

Ritter said her daughter will attend the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center to take child-care classes for an additional year after her senior year. She will also take transition classes, which teach life skills, at the high school. She said Thompson will have enough class credits to graduate after four years but will need the additional instruction before receiving her diploma.

Lipke said the graduation practices for students with disabilities varied at districts throughout the state. Some districts already allowed students to participate in graduation before completing their specialized curriculum, while others worried about the legal implications of the change.

Before approaching Lipke, Ritter said she made a formal request to the Jackson School District, which she said has been accommodating with her daughter's education. On her birthday in December, Ritter said, she received a reply saying her daughter would not be able to walk at graduation if she planned to take classes after her senior year. She said she decided to work toward changing the policy.

"I thought, I'm going to have a very busy 40th birthday because I'm going to have to pass a state law," she said.

She said even if the district allowed the change, she still wanted to approach Lipke about changing the policy for students statewide.

"I'm a very passionate person about my daughter and people with disabilities in general," she said.

On Thompson's 18th birthday, the legislation cleared the Missouri Senate without any dissenting votes. Thompson, who was diagnosed as a baby, said participating in senior activities next year will be exciting.

"It's just kind of been my dream since I was little," she said.

abusch@semissourian.com

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