Special education students not invited on Stuarts Draft Middle School trip


STUARTS DRAFT — Aaron Campbell had been looking forward to Stuarts Draft Middle School’s annual eighth grade field trip to Kings Dominion all year.

Aaron’s mom, Elizabeth, didn’t know anything about the spring trip — until she received an automated call from the school reminding parents to turn in Kings Dominion forms and payment.

When she realized Aaron and his peers in the Exceptional Learners class hadn’t been invited on the spring trip, Campbell was furious.

After Campbell had several conversations with school officials, the Exceptional Learners were invited on the field trip, a decision the division says is reflective of their inclusive education practices. Still, Campbell says the division hasn’t addressed her concerns about discrimination against special education students, and one lawyer says the case could be a violation of federal law.

“[Campbell’s] questions allowed us to take an opportunity to re-evaluate the practice that was in place … and move forward,” said Augusta County Director of Pupil Services Miranda Ball. “[That] is a reflection of what happens both in our division and in Stuarts Draft Middle School. We’re very proud of the way that we include all learners in activities and events across the division, and there are certainly multiple examples of those across all schools.”

Campbell said Aaron, who has autism, was excited about the theme park field trip ever since his older brother went last year.

She brought up the Kings Dominion outing during an Individualized Education Program meeting a few months ago with a school official and her son’s teacher. She said she offered to accompany him if necessary and was told “no problem” by the school official present.

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After receiving the automated call, Campbell said she contacted the school administration, Aaron’s teacher and a division employee. School staff told her the field trip was connected to general education science curriculum — not just a fun trip to a theme park — so Aaron wouldn’t be able to go, Campbell said.

Aaron learns about science in his classes, Campbell wrote to The News Leader, and she wondered why the Exceptional Learners wouldn’t be allowed to bolster their learning with a field trip. Plus, Aaron’s IEP – a learning plan created by parents, teachers and school staff for children with disabilities – specifies that Aaron would be allowed to participate in special school events with the rest of his peers, Campbell wrote.

This case could be a violation of Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said Selene Almazan, legal director of the independent nonprofit Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, Inc., which works to “protect the legal and civil rights” of students with disabilities.

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“Under 504, you can’t make different decisions or exclude people with disabilities from the same benefits or services or programs that other people without disabilities are accessing, whether that’s a daycare program or a camp program or field trips in schools,” she said. “And there are several areas of the IDEA in the statute and the regulations that talk about kids with disabilities accessing extracurricular activities.”

The parent could file a complaint with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights for a potential Section 504 violation, in addition to filing a complaint with the Virginia Department of Education, Almazan said.

Campbell said she spoke with the state Department of Education and contacted several other groups about the incident.

Then she received a call from Augusta County Public Schools.

“I was told that they had looked further into the matter and that since my son does receive adapted instruction in eighth grade physical science … they would ‘allow’ my son and his classmates to be invited to participate on the field trip,” she wrote in a Facebook post provided to The News Leader.

Exceptional Learners historically were not invited on the field trip because their adapted curriculum didn’t match up with the general education learning activities scheduled before, during and after the day at Kings Dominion, Ball said.

However, the division has worked to align the adapted curriculum with the general education curriculum. The special education students will participate in adapted learning activities for the Kings Dominion trip, which was “the basis for their inclusion” this year, she said.

“I would just highlight this situation as a good example of our efforts and intentions to be responsive and to continually strengthen and improve what we’re doing again for all learners,” she said.

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Ball said the situation also represents how the division values parent input. Campbell still had concerns after speaking with building-level administrators, Ball said, so she agreed to talk with the parent and “worked with the administration to be sure we were looking at that situation through the most relevant lenses.”

Campbell recounted the ordeal at an April 4 school board meeting, explaining that while she was glad the Exceptional Learners would be included in the trip, that solution didn’t address “the overall issue of segregation and discrimination.”

She pledged to offer a scholarship for Exceptional Learners who wanted to go on the field trip.

“I have faith they will do their due [diligence] to look into this matter further to help ensure that something like this does not happen again at SDMS or any other school in Augusta County,” she wrote in a Facebook post provided to The News Leader.

Education reporter Rilyn Eischens wants to hear about your family’s experiences in local schools – get in touch at reischens@newsleader.com. Twitter: @rilyneischens.

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