Bill gives disabled students right to participate in graduation ceremonies

Photo courtesy of the Maryland Governor’s Office

A bill allowing students with disabilities to participate in their high school graduation ceremony has passed both the Assembly and the Senate, and is now awaiting signature from the governor to become law.

Co-sponsored by Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, the bill is part of an eleven-bill package dubbed the “Autism Action” legislation, which is dedicated to helping disabled and autistic New Yorkers, who are often overlooked.

Currently in New York, there is no required policy by the State Education Department to allow students with disabilities to participate in their high school graduation ceremony. There are a number of disabled students who require special considerations while maintaining their academic studies toward a high school diploma, or the state equivalent of that.

This bill, entitled the High School Graduation Participation Program (S.4729-a/A.1595-a), would require local policies be implemented by school districts to ensure that all students with disabilities are allowed to participate in their graduation ceremonies.

This would include students who receive a skills and achievement commencement credential in place of a high school diploma.

The bill also goes by the title of “Zachary’s Law,” after being written in response to the trouble a high school student, Zachary Lerman, went through at the end of his senior year. Lerman, who has autism, took part in all of the normal events any typical high school senior looks forward to — a senior banquet, prom, and senior yearbook photos.

However, in the Washingtonville Central School District where Lerman went to school, there were no policies put in place that would allow him to participate in his graduation ceremony. This was due to the fact that he had not received a high school diploma, but received a certificate as a disabled student instead. Lerman and his family, as well as those who heard his story, knew that something should be done to make sure that no student is denied what Zachary was denied.

Janine Kruiswijk, executive director of the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region, also firmly agrees with the policies put forth by this bill.

“Students with developmental disabilities should be able to participate in graduation ceremonies with their fellow peers and friends who they have been attending school with since early on.” she said. This legislation, if passed, will make that possible.

“On graduation day, students with disabilities must not be left out,” Santabarbara said. “We must ensure that all students who work hard to earn a diploma [or equivalent] can get the recognition they deserve.”

Santabarbara, who has been very vocal about the importance of this bill, has good reason to lend his support and sponsorship. His 15-year-old son, Michael, was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. In order to make certain that Michael will be able to take part in a graduation ceremony when the time comes, Santabarbara has encouraged this law to come to fruition.


“This bill will ensure that in high schools across the state, students with disabilities can celebrate this accomplishment with their fellow students just like everybody else,” he said.

Dr. Carol Pallas, the superintendent of Schalmont Central School District, has also expressed her support for the bill. “Every student deserves the opportunity to walk the stage and receive the diploma they’ve earned,” she said. “Graduating high school is one of the great milestones of our lives, and these students should have the ability to celebrate the moment with their peers. We will continue to welcome all our students to the stage, and honor their accomplishments.”

The bill now awaits the governor’s signature before becoming New York state law.