HILLSBOROUGH, N.J. – The mother of a New Jersey student with Down syndrome who was forced to the leave the senior prom early has filed suit against the school district, claiming her daughter was the victim of discrimination because of her disability.
The suit, filed Monday in Superior Court in Somerset County, argues that the Hillsborough High School student, Lily Doyle, was “humiliated” when she was forced to leave the prom early while other “neurotypical” students were allowed to stay.
The school district offered a “sincerest apology” for an “unfortunate mistake with heartbreaking ramifications” for the incident at the May 17 prom when 11 students, nine of whom had special needs, were forced to leave early.
The incident sparked a firestorm of criticism of the school district throughout the state.
The lawsuit, filed by the Red Bank law firm of McOmber & McOmber, said Doyle “was more than excited to create lasting memories with her closet friends, many of whom also had intellectual disabilities.”
But, the suit continues, “what was supposed to be an evening they will always cherish, turned into a nightmare that will haunt (Doyle and her mother) for the rest of their lives.”
The suit argues “there was a complete institutional failure at all levels of the Hillsborough School District” including a “sham investigation” of the incident.
In a statement on Wednesday, the school denied all charges of discrimination.
“The district is proud of its commitment to providing all students with an excellent educational environment that is inclusive and non-discriminatory, and looks forward to presenting its defense to the allegations in court,” the statement said.
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When Doyle bought her tickets to the prom, the lawsuit states, they contained the stipulation that “all attendees are required to stay until 11 p.m.” and “limos may arrive no earlier than 11:15 p.m.”
The student and her friends made plans to attend and parents arranged for a limousine.
Three special education aides – Pamela Figard, Kathy Reddan and Toni Marchak – were assigned to help Doyle and her friends at the prom. But Figard, the lawsuit charges, told the limousine driver to pick them up at 10:45 p.m., despite his protests that he wasn’t supposed to arrive until 11:15 p.m.
At about 10:05 p.m., two friends of Doyle overheard Figard call the limousine driver and tell him he “better be at the prom at 10:35 p.m. to pick up students,” according to the lawsuit.
At the same time, Figard told another friend of Doyle to be ready “in half an hour.”
The three aides then began to gather Doyle and her friends to leave and “forced several students with disabilities to leave the dance floor in the middle of a song while the rest of the students continued dancing,” according to the lawsuit.
The aides forced them “to get up from their table and walk to the exit in front of their classmates who were still enjoying the Senior Prom,” the lawsuit states.
Doyle and her friends were “humiliated” for being singled out and several students began to protest. One of Doyle’s friends told Figard, “I just want to be normal” as she was being forced to leave, according to the lawsuit.
When another student complained about leaving, Figard reportedly said, “I’m the adult here,” the lawsuit says.
As they were being gathered to leave, the DJ announced that the prom king and queen were going to be announced. Two of Doyle’s friends “begged” to stay to see who would be crowned, the lawsuit says.
“Several of (Doyle’s) friends were openly weeping” as they were led out of the ballroom, the lawsuit alleges.
The vice principals in attendance did nothing to stop the aides forcing Doyle and her friends to leave, according to the lawsuit.
Figard later explained her decision by saying she wanted to give Doyle and her friends plenty of time to walk safely to their limousine through empty hallways before everyone else left the ballroom. Figard further explained that one of the students was visually impaired.
However, the lawsuit alleged, the three aides offered no assistance or comfort to the students as they were leaving “despite the fact a number of them were openly weeping and emotionally distraught.”
As soon as the students left in their limousine, the three aides went home.
The decision to force Doyle and her friends to leave early “was motivated by (Figard’s) desire to finish her night of work and go home early rather than by any effort to give (Doyle) and her friends the best and safest possible Prom experience,” the lawsuit contends.
But, the lawsuit alleges, that’s not where the problems ended.
After the high school launched an investigation requested by Doyle’s mother, the school district released a statement that said although Doyle and her friends should not have left the prom early, “the investigation did not reveal it was done intentionally or with any malice.”
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In conjunction with the investigation, according the lawsuit, a district official claimed one of Doyle’s friends had asked to leave the prom early. That request prompted Figard to make “the mistake” of forcing the group to leave early.
That assertion, the suit argues, was “untruthful,” because Doyle and her friends did not hear any student ask to leave early.
Doyle’s mother and parents of the other students sent letters to the district, demanding that Figard be fired and the others be suspended without pay and given anti-discrimination training. However, all three remained employed.
Because of the district’s failure to respond to the complaints or remedy the issues, Doyle and her parents have moved to a new school district, according to the lawsuit.