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When a School Excluded My Daughter With Down Syndrome

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We had one of those hard parenting moments recently.

KC will start preschool this year. The thought alone terrifies me a bit, but I’ve worked hard to face the reality this day is fast approaching and my best response is to be prepared. We’ve researched many schools and talked to every educator in KC’s life about what they feel her best option for school is. We’ve received a unanimous response, “inclusive preschool.” We’ve worried about how KC’s petite stature will work out in a large group setting, but we’ve also watched her interact and keep up beautifully with her peers on Sunday mornings at church. So, we made a list of our best options with top of the list being KC attending the same private school her big sisters attended for Preschool. We talked with the big girls’ former teacher who was on board and very excited. She loved and taught our big girls so well it really seemed like an obvious choice. We aren’t aware of any other kids with disabilities going to this school, therefore, we came up with a plan to ensure her whole team was on board and we didn’t require any extra accommodations from the private school. We developed a grand plan and felt sure when we met with the school and introduced KC and our plan, they’d be glad to give it a go.

KC currently has a home teacher who was on board with going to visit KC in the classroom weekly to work on anything her new teacher thought KC could use extra help with. Her therapists were on board with us coming after her school day to keep in step with her peers. Her private PT was on board to come visit the school at playtime and even before the school year actually starts to make sure KC could safely navigate the playground. Her soon to be new teacher was thrilled to have the opportunity to have taught all three of our girls. A lot of thought and planning went into making sure this would be a successful first year of school and a lot of people were on board to make sure it would not require extra on the part of the private school. We excitedly sent an email to the private school Kindergarten director letting them know we are interested in sending our daughter to their school this year and we would love to sit down and talk it through to see how we all thought it would work out. We mentioned she has Down syndrome and she’s small, but that was pretty much all of the description we sent.

Sadly, we never had the opportunity to sit down and have that conversation. The director called my husband soon after he sent the email to explain they aren’t equipped to take kids with IEP’s or kids who require anything above speech therapy. No, they didn’t ask if KC even needed anything above speech therapy or if she even needed speech therapy. They also let us know their class size is too big for our child. We’ve sent two kids there already, we are well aware of class sizes and confused at how they knew classes are too big for someone they’d never met.  They offered some other school recommendations for “Down syndrome kids.”

Maybe not surprising at this point, but their suggestions were all schools specifically for special education.

I cried a lot of ugly tears that day and then I cried some more the next. How can a kid they never asked a single question about be discouraged from attending their school? How can recommendations be made about what would be best for someone they’ve never laid eyes on?

My heart hurt. Part of me wanted to enroll her anyhow just to prove a point, but the majority of me wanted to keep her as far away as possible from the situation. I think about the educators I know, educators who are  so passionate about their jobs and the kids they teach and the opportunity to work alongside involved parents to grow their kids. I wonder how often they are denied the opportunity to have an amazing kid like KC in their classroom because the moment someone hears a diagnosis they turn their minds and their hearts from the possibility that a child with a diagnosis could benefit from a typical classroom environment. Or better yet, provide benefit to a typical classroom. How can this be right? How can my child be excluded from a school without so much as an interview? How can having Down syndrome alone be a red flag? My heart is broken. It’s broken for KC, it’s broken for us, it’s broken for the teacher that couldn’t wait to teach KC, it’s broken for the kids and staff who will miss out on a great kid. It’s also broken for the many other families out there whose child has been rejected or excluded without a fair opportunity. I’m sorry this happens. I’m sorry you guys have felt this hurt. It’s not right and it shouldn’t happen. We try so hard to make the right choices for our children and it’s disappointing when our kids are unfairly judged.

My biggest questions though, how can we use this experience? How can this be turned into good? How can our experience grow and educate others? I think sharing our experience is the best response. I think people have no idea situations like this occur. I hope people realize having a diagnosis doesn’t make you identical to everyone else with that diagnosis. Down syndrome is a similarity, not a uniformity. I want KC as well as other prospective students to be viewed as individuals by learning institutions and not by their diagnosis so they can find the best fit for education.

We feel strongly this year KC will thrive in an inclusive environment and that’s a choice we will constantly need to evaluate. I hate that so much thought and planning went into making all of this possible only to be shot down immediately by administration. As I’m reminded by close friends and family, we believe the God who created our sweet girl has a plan for her and while it may be different from our plans, it’s surely a better plan that anything I’m capable of concocting. I talked with another private school the next day who said all of the things you’d hope a school would say. “We’ve had the opportunity to have many different types of friends at our school and we are thrilled to meet you guys to see if this is the right place.” I talked with another preschool director who said she’s not had a kid with Down syndrome in her classes before but she’s more than willing to meet and she feels like she has a lot to offer KC in a classroom. Maybe one will be a great fit, maybe neither will but I’m at least thankful for those that are open to the conversation. I’m also thankful our journey with KC constantly grows me and reminds me of God’s love for us. The “noes” are painful but I can rest assured the “yeses” will be worth the wait and even the struggle. I know I’ll soon be sharing about the school she ends up going to and about both the challenges and the benefits of an inclusive setting. I know this journey will continue to have low moments as well as high ones.

KC is is smart, silly, capable girl and I know she will excel in the right environment.

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Originally published: April 18, 2017
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