Riley Hooper starts his first day in Grade 8 tomorrow (Thursday), at Brookswood Secondary.
But the day before moving to his new school, the 12-year-old accompanied his mother back to H.D. Stafford Middle School to visit his old teachers.
It was also a chance for them to pick up his yearbook from 2015-16. But, what his mother Debra Benning found – or didn’t find – on the pages inside the yearbook has her outraged.
“I was just mortified,” she said.
For the second-year in a row, her autistic son – and his classmates from the school’s Division 22 special needs class – were all but excluded from the yearbook.
All the other classes in the school were divided out into the book by division, and each featured professionally taken school portraits of the kids.
But not the 10 or so kids in Riley’s class, Benning said, flipping through the yearbook and stopping on a page simply entitled “We Play.”
It featured only those words, and a series of candid shots of some of the kids in Riley’s special needs class.
“That’s it… Are you kidding me? My heart sank and tears welled up in my eyes,” Benning said. “I’m beyond angry, upset, and hurt that they disregarded these children.”
After the class was excluded from last year’s yearbook completely, Benning wrote letters to the school district and had a meeting with the principal of the day.
She described him as extremely apologetic, and she received assurances it was an accident, an oversight, and that it would never happen again.
But it did, and while not wanting to blame any one person or group in particular for this “hurtful” oversight, she just wants to ensure it never happens again.
“The whole point is that these kids – regardless of their challenges – need to be included. They can’t be forgotten. They can’t just be stuffed away in a corner,” Benning said.
She feels the yearbook exclusion was symbolic of a much bigger issue in the school where not enough is done to integrate kids with special needs into the rest of the school population, whenever possible.
“Even though my kid has autism, he has feelings,” she added.
Benning was “so upset” that she went home and posted a video about the experience, first sharing it on the Langley Mom’s Facebook page – to gauge if she was overreacting.
“This is sickening!” she posted. “I am so lost for words… all children deserve recognition, and I’m so sorry this had to happen to Riley.”
Receiving nothing but support from other outraged mothers, Benning then posted the video to her own page, and in seven short hours she’s had more than 17,000 views.
“It’s gone viral,” she said. “It shows that this was wrong. It’s not just me overreacting… Last year I kept quiet. This year, I’m very, very angry. It has to change.”
She has since sat down with the new principal, and again received assurances it won’t happen again. But this time out, Benning said, she felt she had to speak out – fearing no changes to the system would ever come unless she did.
“I’ve heard that empty promise before,” she said, insisting the district has to make sweeping changes to ensure inclusion by both teachers and students, alike.
Langley School District has apologized, but not yet offered an explanation to media for the exclusion, through district spokesperson Ken Hoff.
“It was the result of an unfortunate error,” Hoff said. “It’s not something that is reflective of the inclusion and community that is H.D. Stafford Middle School and the Langley School District.”
Hoff added that the district is working to ensure it won’t happen again.
The school posted on its Facebook page: “This afternoon, I spoke with the family and again apologized. We are currently working with our publishing company to reprint yearbooks for all students in our Access Program (Division 22) at no cost to them. We will also be sending a replacement page to all students who purchased a 2015/2016 yearbook. While it cannot replace the initial hurt, we hope it is a step in the right direction towards making things right.”
Benning has since heard from one of Riley’s teachers at Stafford, who took it upon herself to put together a special album of photos for all the Division 22 kids – at her own cost.
It includes a sequence of “beautiful” photos – most of them candids – of the kids in that class from throughout the year.
“It was so sweet,” Benning said, noting – that unlike the yearbook – this is a keepsake that Riley can hang on to and cherish for the rest of his life.