Some Arizona students with disabilities are being forced to graduate high school too early
Thousands of high school seniors across Arizona celebrated graduation season this past month, grinning in caps and gowns for proud families. But for some Arizona students, the end of high school can — and, legal experts say — should — wait.
On a warm Friday afternoon, Matthew Ciani sprawls on the couch in the living room of his family’s home. It’s Cinco de Mayo and Ciani’s mom, Nora Moreno, has just made salsa. Ciani wanders from couch to kitchen and back again, grabbing snacks. His current favorite movie, "Puss In Boots," blares in the background. He’s also partial to Harry Potter.
Ciani is 19. He’s a senior at North High School in Phoenix. He has Down syndrome and spends his days in a self-contained classroom with other students in the school’s special education program.
“Am I a good mom?” Moreno asks Ciani with a teasing tone.
“You love me?”
“To heaven and back,” Ciani said.
“To heaven and back,” Moreno repeats.
Her son is a man of few words, Moreno says, particularly since his father passed away the summer before his sophomore year. The two were very close. She says Christmas music makes Ciani sad now. It reminds him of his dad, who celebrated holidays with him and coached his soccer team.
“His dad's family asked him to be a pallbearer,” Moreno said. “And I thought, well, how in the hell am I gonna do this? And thank God for just, there's awesome, awesome people out there in the world. Thank God for his teacher. She'd come over, I'd make dinner and we would just practice walking slow.”
“He just rose to the occasion. And I was so proud of him. And ugh, I cried like a baby because for a moment, for like, just one moment I thought, ah, I got this flash of like, clarity. Like, oh my God, he gets this. He knows," Moreno said.
It’s not perfect, but Moreno’s been grateful to have Ciani in school. He can write his name and reads using pictures.
According to federal law, students like Ciani — who have significant cognitive disabilities and participate in a life skills program instead of attending academic classes — have the right to remain in public school until their 22nd birthday. In Arizona, a student in special education can graduate with a general education diploma before that — but they must complete all the credits necessary.
Months ago, Ciani’s team made no mention of him leaving North High any time soon. So Moreno was surprised when a teacher mentioned casually this past February that Ciani would be graduating in May. The conversation took place at the end of a field trip. Moreno was distracted, waving goodbye to her son who was riding back to school on the bus.
“She goes, 'yeah, you know, Matthew's gonna graduate this year.' And I just stopped in my tracks. I'm like, all the kids had got on the bus. I'm barely leaving the window being silly. 'Hey, I'll see you later, bud. You know, I'll see you'll be home waiting for you.' And I walked back over and I'm like, 'excuse me?' She says, 'Yeah, you know, he's gonna graduate this year.' I go when and she said May. And I said, 'You know what? No, no.' I said, 'No, no, no.' I said, 'no,'" Moreno said.
There was no transition plan in place for Ciani, who was receiving speech, occupational and physical therapy at school. Nowhere for him to go after he graduated, nothing for him to do. And Moreno felt it was impossible that he’d earned the credits needed to graduate — but suddenly school officials were saying her son could do math and other things he’d never done before.
“How is it that he's mastered all these goals, and I'm getting more things mailed and coming in the mail,” Moreno asks. “And when I speak about this, oh they're, they, they wanna shut me down.”
Ciani is not alone. It’s impossible to know how many students in special education are forced to graduate before they — and their families — feel they’re ready. Experts say the vast majority are never accounted for; parents are told their child is graduating and they accept it without argument — or knowledge there are any options.
In 2022, the Arizona Center for Disability Law, known as ACDL, a federally funded public interest firm, received nine calls about forced graduation and took on three of the cases. It happens every year, says ACDL attorney Amanda Glass.
The issue, she says, is that students in special education are being given credit for work that is not aligned with state standards.
“If you look at the actual work they're doing, it's counting. Counting cans that as they put them up on a shelf. It's not the same standard that a student in a general algebra one class would be working on,” Glass said. “It's much lower. And so our argument is that by lowering the standard for earning the diploma only for a child with a disability, you're discriminating, you're holding them to a different and lower standard than a non-disabled student. And in general, we want all of our kids to be graduating with that high school diploma being accommodated so that they can achieve at the same level.”
Glass says that can’t always happen.
“There are certain students, those most significantly impacted, for whom earning that regular diploma may never be realistic, but those students should not be kicked out after four years when they have all their connections and therapies and services through the school. And the school has the obligation to continue to serve them," Glass said.
Amy Langerman, a special education lawyer who has filed more complaints than she can count on behalf of parents alleging forced graduation, says she never loses a case because the evidence is so obvious.
“What's really obscene is that oftentimes the school personnel will go directly to the student and say, Oh, I'm really sorry. You don't get to be with your friends anymore. And you don't get to participate in any of those fun activities. You don't get to have your picture taken and I'm sorry your mom doesn't want you to graduate. And they literally try to pit the student against the parent who's trying to advocate for the student’s federally protected rights," Langerman said.
In one recent case involving a West Valley high school and a student with Down syndrome, the school emailed a family in the spring of 2020 to announce their 18-year-old son had earned all the credits he needed to graduate with a general education diploma. Two years earlier, the young man needed help to identify numbers above 10 and could identify only some letters of the alphabet.
The district paid Langerman $19,000 in attorney fees and agreed to pay for services including in-home behavioral health care.
In another case, a young man with fetal alcohol syndrome who had significant behavior issues and declining cognitive skills was told that suddenly, he qualified to graduate. That one cost an East Valley school district $70,000 in attorney fees.
At first glance, it doesn’t appear that there’s a reason school officials are pushing for forced graduation. Schools receive additional resources for students in special education. But experts say there is an incentive for graduating students — including special-ed students — in four years. It’s the state’s annual report card that gives each public school a letter grade.
“I do think the letter grade issue is a big part of it and is the unfortunate underlying motivation that schools see for getting kids out too early. So if that were removed, if we could get rid of that portion of the letter grade, assessment, I think that would be really helpful," Glass said.
"I do think the letter grade issue is a big part of it and is the unfortunate underlying motivation that schools see for getting kids out too early."
— Amanda Glass, Arizona Center for Disability Law attorney
Arizona Department of Education spokesman Doug Nick declined requests for an on-air interview but agreed to answer written questions. He acknowledged that graduation rates count for 20% of a school’s grade. For example, at North High about 80% of students graduated in four years. That figure from school year 2021-2022 is a little more than half for students in North’s special education program.
Phoenix Union High School District officials, who also turned down the request for on-air comment, say that decisions about graduation for students in special education has nothing to do with letter grades.
“In Phoenix Union, we do not value our state label above the services individual students receive. We make decisions based on what is best for each student and their circumstances,” district spokesman Richard Franco wrote.
George Diaz isn’t so sure about that. Diaz is a longtime legislative lobbyist who currently works for the Arizona Secretary of State. He was one of Ciani’s father’s closest friends. When Moreno told him what happened, he picked up the phone.
“Not everybody has a professional advocate to call and say, 'Hey, handle this for me,'” Diaz said.
Diaz called legislators and education officials, including long-time friend Lela Alston, the president of Phoenix Union’s board, who confirmed to KJZZ News that she called the district’s superintendent and asked him to fix the situation.
“I had a lot of resources here. I made these calls. I got a lot of advice, and I couldn't have asked for a better group of support. And I'll tell you that it took us a while to sit down with the people from North High School. Took us a long while. Almost two months," Moreno said.
At the end of April, school officials met with Moreno and Diaz and agreed to postpone Ciani’s graduation.
“For every Nora, there has to be 10 other ones that go unserved or unaccounted for,” Diaz said. “And that, that's way too many. I just, I don't, the experience, even though it ended with a great result, left a very bad feeling with me, wondering how many other parents are left in this very similar predicament.”
Not only is Ciani set to spend at least another year at North High, the school promised to look into a communication device, Moreno says.
She is cautiously optimistic. And a little melancholy.
“I think they wanna cater more to his needs. What's gonna be best for him? Where is he gonna fit best to blossom? You know? And that to me is a win. That's a victory. They should have been doing it a long time ago. But nonetheless, nonetheless, it's happening. And it just makes me think about how many kids are truly being forced to graduate," she said.