WARREN TOWNSHIP — The mother of a Watchung Hills special needs student who was disappointed to not be included in the high school yearbook as she expected hopes something positive comes from the experience.

The student's older sister, Amanda Occhipinti, was upset by the perceived slight and in a Facebook post on Thursday said younger sister Glenda received her yearbook on Thursday and "was intentionally left out, as were the remainder of the special education students."

"Everyone in the special education department was acknowledged: except the students. She was not given the same thought and respect that other students immediately received. There wasn’t even the mention of her name in the index," Occhipinti wrote.

She accused the district of "cherry picking the image they want to portray to the world" by leaving the students out.

But the district says no students were intentionally omitted, and the school will investigate whether any others were accidentally. However, it did say that students who aren't assigned to a specific grade — as is the case with Glenda — haven't traditionally had individual portraits in its yearbooks.

Glenda's mother. Jill DeFabio, told New Jersey 101.5 on Friday that Glenda is 20 years old and in her first year as part of the Learning and Language Disabled program at Watchung Hills. It allows her to attend high school for longer than the traditional four years, until she is 21 years old. Glenda will graduate with the Class of 2021.

"That's part of the issue, that there there is no designation other than 9, 10, 11, 12" in the yearbook, DeFabio said. "There's not a 12-plus in which to place her. I believe they will look in the future to change that."

When a student in the LLD program is ready to graduate, his or her picture is included with the senior class, according to DeFabio.

It was a disappointing afternoon for Glenda when she came home with her yearbook and started looking through it, her mother said.

"She's so happy to be attending Watchung Hills. Her four older siblings had attended and she was very familiar with the yearbook as well as from her previous school. She just kept flipping the pages saying 'I can't find my picture. I can't find my picture.'  And it was haunting and it was surprising because she couldn't find her picture because there was no picture to be found."

DeFabio praised Watchung Hills for being focused on academics and and said Glenda was consistently on the honor roll.

"Now that she's in an environment of real learning, it's been a blessing so we're very pleased with the progress she's been making," DeFabio said. "A+ all the way."

Her individual photo was included in the yearbook at her previous school and she posted for a school picture along with other underclass students in the yearbook

"None of the other LLD special ed students, her class, are listed in the index nor do they have a photo," DeFabio said, adding that special ed students that are integrated into general ed in the class grade level with support or aides were included.

DeFabio said that the yearbook advisor is a special services teacher and she would expect her to be "well-informed that these students were not visible in the yearbook."

Glenda DeFabio (Jill DeFabio)

DeFabio is hoping for a positive outcome to the situation and hopes it creates awareness about students like her daughter that may not fit into a specific grade level find a way for inclusion.

"We're in a mindset of reform right now and I think this can peacefully and positively be driven so that other students will have the opportunity to be included or to opt out if they do not wish to be included," DeFabio said.

"Glenda has touched so many lives and there's so many comments about what she does, how she greets people, how she opens the door for people. She always has a smile on her face, she's very welcoming and engaging and her pure love and her pure light really is the message we want to share," her mother said.

Watchung Hills School Superintendent Elizabeth Jewett told New Jersey 101.5 the district is "working on options with the yearbook company to rectify any additional omissions we identify as we look into the matter further."  The district would bear the cost of any supplement if that is the solution that is selected, according to Jewett.

The superintendent said the district learned on Thursday that "one or more of our students was left out of the yearbook," and Jewett  said she has apologized to the family.

"This is troubling and, certainly, was not intentional. The district would never exclude any student from any aspect of Watchung Hills due to a disability, race/ethnicity, or for any other reason," Jewett said.

Jewett said in a statement that all students, whether they receive special education support services or not, appear in their respective class sections for their grade levels. She said that in the past students in situations like Glendas, outside of the traditional grades, did not appear in an individual photo.

"Some of our students who receive special education support services are entitled to services through the age of 21 and participate in our transition program once they complete their 12th grade year," Jewett said. "While these students may appear throughout the yearbook in club and candid photos, they do not appear in the 9th-12th grade section of individual student portraits."

There are privacy laws to consider and the district is not permitted to publicly identify students as receiving special education services, in our yearbook or elsewhere, she said.

"This is why we have not included a section with portraits of our transition program students up to this point. However, we are revisiting this and are considering doing so in the future for parents of students who would like this option and will grant permission for us to do so," Jewett said.

Watchung Hills Regional High School has an enrollment of over 1,900 students from Green Brook, Long Hill Township, Warren Township and Watchung, according to the district website. Jewett said approximately 16% of the total student body receives special education support services
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Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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