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Teen Prevented From Walking at Graduation Gets Support From Down Syndrome Community

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High school senior Chloe Hipkiss was set to graduate from Noblesville High School in Indiana on June 5, but a month before, her mother found out Hipkiss could not walk with her class because she did not have the required amount of credits. Chloe has Down syndrome and is working towards a certificate, which she will obtain when she is 22.

Special education students with individualized education plans (IEP) who may not be able to obtain a regular high school diploma have the option of working towards a certificate and, in some states, a special education diploma. Typically, this plan is set in middle school. While students with disabilities have the option of staying in school until age 21 or 22, they become seniors along with their peers and typically walk with their graduating class. The years following are “transition years,” not extra high school years. During these years, students work on life-skills and job training while keeping up their coursework to obtain their certificates.

In November, a teacher discussed graduation with Lisa Hipkiss, Chloe’s mom. They talked about Chloe needing a cap and gown for the graduation ceremony, which Lisa then purchased for her daughter.

When Lisa was told her daughter could not walk with her class, she was confused. She asked administrators to show her exactly where Chloe was not meeting requirements per her IEP. Lisa told The Mighty that the school’s administration insisted Chloe could not participate in its commencement ceremony, referring to a school policy Lisa had never heard about or discussed before, and one that seemed specific only to their school.

Lisa said she tried to work things out with the school, she wrote several emails to the assistant principal, the principal and the superintendent. “They all backed the decision of the assistant principal to not let Chloe walk with her class,” she said.

Lisa then shared Chloe’s story on social media and did an interview with a local media channel.

Support from the disability community followed soon after. Many shared their outrage on social media using the hashtag #LetChloeWalk

After the community began rallying around Chloe, a reliable source told Lisa the school called for an emergency meeting with its attorney Saturday afternoon, after receiving close to 2000 calls and emails.

After the meeting, Lisa received an email stating Chloe would be allowed to participate in the commencement ceremony because the school had not been clear in their policies and practices.

“I feel like their whole last paragraph suggests it’s an error on their part and she shouldn’t be walking, but they’ll make an exception now that media is involved,” Colleen Novit, who spoke out in support of Chloe, said. “All kids on a certificate program should be allowed to walk with their class.”

Lisa believes the school only changed their stance “because of the calls and emails and in order to avoid media coverage.”

While Chloe will be allowed to walk with her class, Lisa said she feels the school’s initial response was a personal act of discrimination towards her daughter. Their neighbor, a close friend of Chloe’s, is walking this year and not receiving a diploma or certificate of completion until she turns 21. She was never told she could not walk.

A former life-skills teacher from Noblesville High School told Lisa that previous students following the same program as Chloe have all walked with their class, and that nobody had been told no before. The teacher was not aware of any policy that would prevent Chloe from walking with her class.

The Mighty reached out to the Noblesville administration, which sent an email stating that “all students, both general education and special education, who complete program requirements for graduation are eligible to participate in commencement.” The administration said there was a communication error between the school and Lisa about requirements, so the administration will allow Chloe to walk.

As for Chloe, the 19-year-old told The Mighty she is excited to walk at graduation.

Originally published: May 23, 2018
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