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Why Were Special Needs Students Left Out of Their School’s Yearbook?
by s.e. smith May 28, 2015
As the days close rapidly on the end of May, one of the most important events of high school life — other than graduation — is right around the corner, and in some cases, it’s already happening. In schools across the nation, boxes of yearbooks are landing in school offices for distribution as students pass them around among their friends for signatures and farewells in the case of graduating seniors. But a time-honored tradition of the process also involves quickly flipping through to see how many pictures of you wound up in the yearbook, and how many were flattering, fun candid shots versus the obligatory portraits or group photos from school organizations.
School years can make or break on yearbooks, but for 17 students in Blue Peak High School’s transitional program, designed to help special needs students develop skills for independence in the outside world, yearbook season was grim. These special needs students were left out of the yearbook entirely on the grounds that they weren’t part of the rest of the school because their classes were segregated, though they used the same classrooms, interacted with the student body, and in many cases had gone to school at the high school before entering the transition program.
Amber Bailey, 21, was one of those students. The young woman has Down syndrome and her mother was startled to see that there weren’t any pictures of Amber in her yearbook. The school’s protest that it hadn’t meant anything by the omissions didn’t sit well with parents and the public, and it ultimately promised to print an insert with photos and profiles of the special needs students. The extreme public pressure may have worked in this case, but this wasn’t an isolated instance. In fact, leaving one or more special needs students out of the yearbook is an alarmingly common practice across the United States.
In 2007, administrators at Ponchartrain Elementary were accused of not including special education students in their yearbook, in this case “mistakenly omitting” pages of the yearbook with portraits of the students. The school was highly apologetic over the incident, but parents weren’t mollified, feeling that it offered further evidence of discriminatory attitudes toward those students; they claimed that the lack of awareness over the missing photos was a striking illustration of the school’s indifference. A similar episode occurred in California in 2009, when an entire special education class was cut out of a yearbook.
For those looking at the grand scheme of things, presence or lack thereof in the yearbook might not seem like a huge social priority. But the casual erasure of special needs students is a reflection of larger social attitudes about people with disabilities and special needs, who are often left out of conversations. As students, they are often isolated in special education classrooms rather than being allowed to mainstream, keeping them out of contact with the rest of their school and with limited opportunities for socialization. The yearbook is one of the few places they can be aggressively and undeniably visible, and one of the few places where they can feel solidarity with their fellow students as they connect with them through the pages of their shared high school experience.
For many, it’s dismaying to open the yearbook and see nothing more than your senior portrait; now imagine cracking it open to see nothing, not even a “not pictured.”