School Officials Apologize After Students with Special Needs Allegedly Excluded from Grad Ceremony

"I was very upset…I'm like, ‘Why did we even come?’ “ Linda Ramirez, the parent of a high school student with special needs, tells PEOPLE

<p>Courtesy of Linda Ramirez</p> Ashlynn Rich

Courtesy of Linda Ramirez

Ashlynn Rich's graduation ceremony
  • Linda Ramirez tells PEOPLE that her daughter, Ashlynn Rose Rich, and several other students with special needs from Sprayberry High School were excluded from fully experiencing their May 25 graduation ceremony

  • The Cobb County School District offered an apology over what happened on June 13 during a school board meeting

  • "[My daughter] was a little hurt by not being able to sit out there with the general ed graduates," Ramirez tells PEOPLE

Georgia school officials apologized on Thursday, June 13, over a high school graduation ceremony last month in which students with special needs were allegedly excluded from fully participating and instead sat in a hallway during the commencement.

In an interview with PEOPLE on Friday, June 14, Linda Ramirez, the mother of Ashlynn Rose Rich, a student from Sprayberry High School in Marietta, says her daughter and the other special ed students were segregated from the rest of the students at the ceremony held at Kennesaw State University (KSU) on May 25. She calls the apology from the Cobb County School District a first step.

"I did thank them for their apology and let them know that's what I wanted, a formal apology, because it should have never happened," she says.

Ramirez says that she wanted Rich to participate in the main commencement ceremony at Kennesaw State University like what her older siblings have experienced. But Rich and several other students with special needs didn't have that opportunity, according to Ramirez.

“All the members of her IEP [individualized education program] team knew that Ashland was to graduate at KSU," she says. "That was always our first thing. Then I was asked later on if Ashlynn would be participating in the special needs graduation held at Sprayberry during the school day. And I said, 'Sure, why not? She's going to be in school anyways.' I'm not going to exclude her from it. So she did also do that. But the understanding is the KSU is the big one."

Related: Family of Girl with 'Profound Autism' Worried She Wouldn't Get Proper Therapy — Now She's Graduating High School

Ramirez says that she didn't know that Rich and the other special ed students weren't going to be with the general ed students until the day of the ceremony. She recalls having a phone conversation with a teacher when she arrived at the commencement.

“I said, ‘Where will [Ashlynn] be sitting?’ ‘Oh, she's not sitting with the general ed students.’ And I said, ‘What?’ Then it got very noisy and I hung up the call. I don't know if it was because I was upset because I heard something I didn't want to hear, but it was too late. The ceremony started at that point."

Ramirez says that the special ed students weren't able to view or hear what was happening at the ceremony such as the speeches and music. “They call the special needs students one by one [to] walk across the stage and exit out a left hallway, to exit outside behind the building," she adds. "And by the time they were done, they were just starting the general ed kids commencement ceremony as far as issuing diplomas. I was very upset…I'm like, ‘Why did we even come?’ “

<p>Courtesy of Linda Ramirez</p> Ashlynn Rich's graduation ceremony

Courtesy of Linda Ramirez

Ashlynn Rich's graduation ceremony

“Everybody that had a special needs child got up to go collect their kids,” Ramirez continues. ”And during this, the commencement ceremony is in full, it's happening. So our kids missed it all. They didn't get the turn of the tassel. They didn't get to see the opening speeches, and they didn't get that big walkout.”

In an interview with ABC affiliate WSB, Ashlynn Rose Rich noted, “I feel depressed and upset for graduation, for the whole ceremony."

Related: High School Student with Disability Felt 'Robbed' After Having to Sit in Audience for Graduation

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In a statement shared with PEOPLE on June 14. a representative for the Cobb County School District wrote: “Every year we graduate approximately 8,000 students and every special needs parent, in every Cobb school, chooses how their child is celebrated. Some Cobb families choose a full graduation ceremony, some choose to protect their child from noise, stimuli or attention in a variety of ways. Every child's needs are discussed individually, and confidentially, so the specific needs of our special needs students are met.”

“This year, although initial reports indicated those choices were offered, we discovered they were not offered to one student at Sprayberry High School,” the statement continued. “Our expectation, and the parent's, was not fully met. As a result, [Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale] apologized to the student and family in last night’s [June 13] Board meeting.”

At a June 13 school board meeting, Ragsdale apologized for what happened at last month's commencement, per a subsequent report from WSB.

<p>Courtesy of Linda Ramirez</p> Ashlynn Rich

Courtesy of Linda Ramirez

Ashlynn Rich

“While I cannot say more about the experience of the Rich family at the Sprayberry ceremony, I can say this. First, on behalf of the district, I apologize to Ashlynn and her family. It does not matter how well-intentioned it appears a decision was made, it should have been a parental decision,” he said.

Ragsdale also noted that the district launched an investigation after learning what happened at the ceremony for the Sprayberry students, adding that it is "being handled as a personal and professional matter."

Earlier in the same meeting, Rich addressed the school board members, saying, per WSB,  “I felt mistreated and discriminated against because I was not allowed to sit with my classmates. Many of my friends are regular students and it made me sad that I couldn’t sit with them and experience graduation together.”

Asked what Ashlynn thought of the recent apology from the school district, Ramirez tells PEOPLE: “She thought it was great. That's about all she said to me, that someone actually recognized her and did apologize to her. She was a little hurt by not being able to sit out there with the general ed graduates…She understands that they were wrong and they said they were sorry.”

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