Dennasia Cordova, a student at Mora High School in Mora, New Mexico, has had Type 1 diabetes for most of her life. For Cordova, having diabetes is a daily struggle, but it wasn't until recently that her chronic illness was used as an excuse to exclude her at school. Two weeks ago, Cordova was left out of a science field trip because the school believed it couldn't follow her medical plan and may not have a good cell signal in the case of an emergency. Connie Chavez, Cordova's mother, says her daughter's treatment was just plain wrong and the school didn't live up to its responsibility to accommodate her needs. The school district declined comment, but it did offer to let Cordova go on the field trip if her mother could attend, which she was not able to do.
It almost — almost — seems like this school has a good excuse, citing a potential medical emergency, until you look at Cordova's treatment in the greater context of inclusion. If any other student with special needs was left out of a school field trip for any reason, including a medical concern, the discrimination would be all over the news. Can you imagine a child with a bee allergy being banned from a field trip because there would be poor cell service? On the off chance that they might get sick?
Even though Cordova has a chronic illness, there isn't a gray area here. As Chavez points out, the school has been working with her daughter's condition in the classroom every day, and the same care and support should extend when school activities move beyond classroom doors — like a field trip. Cordova was excluded because of a vague medical excuse, when really, the same rules of inclusion for all students still apply.
It's easy to think that a small case like this doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. After all, it's just one student with an illness who didn't get to go on a field trip. What's the big deal? The big deal is that this treatment of a student who is "different" influences all students, whether a school realizes it or not.
This principle was explained perfectly in a recent NPR piece titled "Your School Shapes How You Think About Inequality." And the gist is this: Students who go to more racially diverse schools may be more attuned to social injustice when they get older. The same argument could be used with practicing inclusion for students of all needs — taking a few extra measures to allow a student with diabetes to go on a field trip, for example, could model acceptance and normalize disabilities for the other students.
This common mistreatment of students with "hidden" disabilities can be devastating for the student and frustrating for the parent. But parents who find themselves in Chavez's shoes aren't without hope. Many parents of a child with an illness don't realize they can get a 504 plan, federally binding a school to provide services to a child with special needs. 504 plans are often overlooked by parents of sick kids because they are mostly associated with learning disabilities, but the same benefits — and federal protection — still apply to a child with a chronic illness. (You can see sample 504 plans from a mother of an 11-year-old boy with migraines and Crohn's disease here.)
The saying "a bad apple will spoil the whole bunch" captures what is going on at Mora High School. In all actuality, this school may have made an honest mistake in excluding a student for what it thought to be her medical protection. But against the backdrop of what is happening every day at schools across America, Cordova's treatment isn't OK — not even a little bit. We know by now that every child has a right to an education in the U.S., even when that education extends to a field trip.
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