Cobb County

Cobb school officials apologize after excluding students with special needs from graduation ceremony

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — At the end of May, Channel 2 Cobb County Bureau Chief Michele Newell shared the story of a Cobb County class with special needs that graduated from high school, but didn’t get to participate in the ceremony.

She spoke to Ashlynn Rose Rich, an athlete and honor student at Sprayberry High School, who told Channel 2 Action News that she and her classmates had to sit in a hallway during graduation.

Rich was allowed to cross the stage when her name was called, but was escorted back to the hallway after, according to her mother Linda Ramirez.

On Thursday, Cobb County School District officials apologized to students and said they’d work to ensure it never happened again at a school board meeting.

“Her whole class was in the hallway. There were no special ed kids in with or mixed in with the typical peers,” Ramirez said in May.

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During Thursday’s Cobb Board of Education meeting, supporters of Rich and her classmates said the “discrimination” at Sprayberry were the district’s standards.

“The fact is, what happened at Sprayberry and the unprofessional actions that followed, are the Cobb standard,” Michael Garza, a supporter of Rich, said. “It stems from a leadership team that is focused on things other than ensuring all of our students receive the education they deserve. That’s not just my opinion. The Board Chair was recently asked his top focus. His answer was remaining in power. The Post 7 member was asked his top two priorities, his answers was porn and property values. And the superintendent is busy banning books that celebrate the rich diversity of our students.”

Garza said what happened to Rich and her peers was unacceptable.

Rich spoke after Garza, who told the school board members how the incident at graduation had felt for her and her fellow students.

“I was very excited to graduate with my friends, but instead I was left in a hallway until it was my turn on stage. 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,” Rich said.

She said the special moment of graduation couldn’t be shared with her friends, unlike what other students were able to experience and asked the board to ensure that type of separation would not happen again for any students, so that everyone can be included.

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Superintendent Chris Ragsdale spoke later in the meeting, offering his apologies to the impacted students and families and promising the district would do better going forward when it comes to graduations and accommodations.

“Citizens and parents should be able to take for granted that all Cobb students at any school that have completed the requirements for graduation will have the same opportunity to celebrate with them, and their family will have the opportunity to celebrate with them,” Ragsdale said. “Recognizing 12 years worth of learning and achievement on a graduation stage is one of the most celebrated American traditions. A recognition not only for a student’s school, school district and teachers, but their family.”

He addressed the graduation issues surrounding the ceremony and how Rich and her classmates were impacted, saying that after learning of the event, the district opened an investigation.

Ragsdale said the investigation was operating as a personnel issue, saying that after speaking with staff and parents, the district had reviewed graduation policies. He said the district has processes in place that are meant to ensure equal graduation participation for all Cobb students, regardless of circumstances, but said that this did not occur for the Sprayberry students.

“Without getting into personnel details, it is being handled as as personnel and professional matter, that is as much as can be said about it publicly at this time,” Ragsdale said.

He also told members of the board and those gathered at the meeting that the district intended to ensure students “with exceptionalities” would still be able to be accommodated for graduation regardless of their differences, saying normally there is supposed to be a consultation process with families for students who may have sensitivities that could be a factor in graduation celebrations.

“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,” Ragsdale said. “What happened should not have happened. While I cannot go back in time, I will give you this. I have now directed the consultation process regarding how we will proceed for students with exceptionalities to become more formalized.”

He said the needs or preferences of graduates and families would be put in writing before the ceremony, and that no employee would be making decisions without parental input for students at graduation. Ragsdale promised graduations would be the celebrations they should be and thanked Rich for speaking up.

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