Harper Oates is a 5-year-old girl who was born with a spinal injury that left her a quadriplegic. After testing, she was found to have the same or higher cognitive abilities as other children her age and plans were made for Harper to join her older sisters at a private school in their town of Brookline, Massachusetts, called Park School.
The Boston Globe reported on Monday that the Oates family was very disappointed to be told by school authorities that Harper’s entry was denied based on her special needs at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. Harper has a full-time aide who would have assisted her on the school’s premises, but the administration insists that accommodations for Harper would have disrupted the school’s teaching plan.
“The school engaged in an open, good-faith discussion with the Oates family about how Harper could thrive and have an enriching and fulfilling academic experience,” the school said in a statement to The Boston Globe. “After much careful and thoughtful deliberation, however, serious concerns remained that the Park School could not meet Harper’s educational needs.
“While we appreciated that the family offered to provide certain accommodations, the school concluded that Harper required additional accommodations that would have fundamentally altered our educational model.”
The debate around Harper’s admission has been going on for some time, and Harper’s parents have gone to multiple meetings with Park School leaders. At the end of 2016, they withdrew the older girls from the school and moved them to another private school nearby, called Dexter Southfield, who were happy to accept Harper as well, writing on the admissions letter, “You have a smart, endearing little girl. Thank you for sharing Harper with us!”
The Oates family was contacted by the U.S. Attorney’s office after filing a complaint with the Department of Education. They say they didn’t officially complain until the new head of Park School, Cynthia Harmon, refused to respond or comply with promises she made to “add a disability nondiscrimination policy to the school’s website, to make the playground accessible to students with disabilities, and to dismiss the school’s admissions director.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act covers private schools under Title III, which states that though private schools may set up separate programs for student’s with special needs or disabilities they cannot “categorically exclude a student because the person would require extra staffing or a modification of their rules or policies.”