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Published in Print: June 16, 2004, as Illinois Down Syndrome Student Graduates, After All

Illinois Down Syndrome Student Graduates, After All

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All Brittany Booth wanted to do was graduate with her classmates at Lyons Township High School in La Grange, Ill.

But it took a proposed change in Illinois law to clear the way for the 18-year-old, who has Down syndrome, to march in her blue cap and gown earlier this month.

"Woo hoo!" Ms. Booth exclaimed as she talked about the June 6 ceremony. "It was pretty good, ... being with your friends."

Ms. Booth’s repeated requests to take part in the graduation ceremony were denied by district officials because, they said, conveying a diploma would signal the end of her education and sever her ties with the school. Because Ms. Booth has a disability, she is legally eligible for transitional vocational training from the school district until age 21—as long as she hasn’t "graduated."

So while Ms. Booth met all of Lyons Township’s high school graduation requirements, the district said, she would have forfeited any further educational services from the school if she accepted a diploma.

But state Sen. Christine Radogno, whose daughters attended school with Ms. Booth, couldn’t understand why the teenager was being barred from the ceremony.

Last week, Ms. Radogno, a Republican, introduced legislation to compel districts to draft policies that would allow students with disabilities who have finished their high school requirements to take part in graduation ceremonies without wiping out their eligibility for vocational services.

Ms. Radogno said she wasn’t trying to create a loophole for students who didn’t complete all of their coursework. She said, though, that students with disabilities who complete their academic requirements should be able to join in the climactic event of high school just like other students.

"This is the kind of legislation people rally around," Ms. Radogno said.

The proposed legislation prompted Dennis G. Kelly, the superintendent of the 3,550-student Lyons Township High School District 204, to give Ms. Booth a diploma. Fourteen special education students could have joined the 771 graduates for the ceremony but only three participated. Mr. Kelly, who was unavailable for comment last week, told the Chicago Tribune: "We think this is a good resolution."

‘Fairy-Tale Ending’

Karen Craven, a spokeswoman with the Illinois state education department, said the school district did nothing wrong by initially denying Ms. Booth a diploma."They had to make the decision based on whatever they thought was important," she said.

The state lets local districts decide whether they wish to recognize at their graduation ceremonies students who have disabilities and are in Ms. Booth’s academic situation, said Ms. Craven. The state suggests that parents of such students work with the districts to figure out how their children can be included in graduation, she added.

Kim Booth, Brittany’s mother, exhausted negotiations with the seven-member school board in May. At that time, she said, the board said that it didn’t want to dilute graduation by handing out a certificate of completion. She said district officials told her that her daughter could take part in graduation when she completed her vocational training.

But by then, Brittany would be graduating with strangers instead of the children she had been with since kindergarten, the mother said, adding: "This only happens once. You can’t re-create this."

The girl’s classmates rallied to her defense and organized a special recognition, during the senior honors assembly, for all students with disabilities who had completed their academic requirements. The students received the only standing ovation during the two-hour ceremony in the school’s hot gymnasium.

On graduation day, Brittany Booth held her head high and smiled the entire time.

"It had all the fairy-tale endings," Kim Booth said of her daughter’s story. "There wasn’t a tiara, but the cap was OK."

Vol. 23, Issue 40, Page 31

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