graduation capsThe end of a high school student’s senior year is traditionally bittersweet. It’s an exciting time (when seniors “rule the school”), yet an anxious one. These students are on the verge of executing their plans for the following year, usually in a college, trade school, or work environment. Therefore, it’s time to say goodbye to childhood and the familiar environment they’ve known for years.

Special education students who are continuing their high school education may also have a bittersweet experience at the end of their “senior” year. Many or all of their friends are graduating and moving on, but they haven’t yet achieved their high school goals and are left behind. When they graduate in the future, it may be with younger students with whom they haven’t forged close relationships.

For these reasons, New Jersey passed legislation in 2008 which permits students whose high school special education program requires instruction beyond four years to participate with their class in the graduation ceremony and receive a certificate of attendance. Known as Alicia’s Law (in honor of New Jersey high school senior Alicia Vitiello, whose school district initially said she wouldn’t be allowed to walk in the graduation ceremony because she had additional coursework to complete in her IEP), it allows special ed students to join their friends in this ritual. Parents should be aware of this law and seek to enforce their child’s right to participate in graduation even if he’s not graduating.

Alicia Vitiello, for whom Alicia's Law is named, joined her classmates for graduation day ceremonies.

Conversely, a special ed student may not be graduated when she hasn’t fulfilled the goals and objectives of her IEP or been sufficiently prepared to transition into a post-secondary situation.

Graduation is considered a change in placement under the law. If your school district plans to graduate your child and you disagree, you should file for mediation and due process to prevent the graduation from occurring. Once the matter is in due process, the stay-put provision of the law prevents the district from graduating a student until the dispute is resolved.

Students with disabilities have options at graduation time. Make the most 
of them.

Jayne M. Wesler is a member of the law firm of Sussan & Greenwald in Cranbury. She is a lawyer, a psychotherapist, and a former child-study team member who advocates for the rights of students who require special educational programs.