The Brewer School Committee on Monday voted to let a student with autism and an intellectual disability participate in her class’ graduation ceremony this spring, even though she’ll return to Brewer High School in the fall for a fifth year of high school.
The unanimous vote will let Sydney Newcomb march with her classmates even though she will not have completed her graduation requirements. The vote came after her mother, Jenn Newcomb, made an appeal to the committee at its Monday night meeting. She said she learned in June 2018 that her daughter wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony.
“When my daughter started her program in 2015, we were told that she could participate in her senior year with her peers and then come back for her fifth year of high school,” she said. “In June, we were told that practice was stopping and so she could not march with friends.”
The school committee on Monday night was considering a formal policy change that would codify the practice of not allowing students to participate in graduation until they had fulfilled all requirements. After hearing from Newcomb, the committee also voted to delay a vote on that policy change.
Newcomb held back tears as she advocated for her daughter. She told committee members that she wanted Sydney to be a part of all senior activities, including graduation, then return for year five of her individualized education program — the individualized plan for a student participating in special education. Sydney participates in a life skills program at Brewer High School and doesn’t participate in the same academic classes as her peers, her mother said.
“In her mind, she’s a senior,” Newcomb said, explaining that Sydney had no idea her ability to march with her peers was at risk. “I’ve been fighting quietly behind the scenes for her.”
Senior Rebecca Gideon also burst into tears while appealing for Sydney to participate in the graduation ceremony.
“I think I speak for the entire class of 2019 when I say we want Sydney Newcomb to be a part of our special graduation day,” Gideon said.
Science teacher Joanne Adair said it was “cruel” that the policy would prevent that from happening.
Newcomb’s fight to allow her daughter to take part in Brewer High School’s graduation ceremony with her class started in June when she learned Sydney wouldn’t be allowed to participate. She first approached the school’s principal, then met with Superintendent Cheri Towle in September. She appealed to the school committee after seeing no changes following her meetings.
“Administration has not listened, so I hope the committee will tonight,” she said before the meeting.
After listening to the public comments and postponing a vote on the policy change, Vice Chairman John Canders said he wanted to make sure Jenn Newcomb walked out of the meeting with some reassurance. He proposed a second motion tailored to her complaint.
“To the extent that it’s legally permissible, I move that we permit Sydney Newcomb and any similarly situated student to participate in all senior activities with their four-year cohort,” he said.
The committee members agreed.