JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Wearing an orange polo shirt that reads "AC Stingrays" and a particularly shiny ear-to-ear grin, you wouldn't be able to tell by the photo on the Facebook page in support of Tyler Anderson's senior year that he's a special needs student.
When he was a year old, Tyler suffered a brain aneurysm that left him with significant brain damage.
"Mentally he has difficulty with cognition and short-term memory. His physical disabilities are problems with vision, no use of his left arm or hand, and a weak leg," says Tyler's mom Shelly.
She tells WOKV that despite his disabilities, 18-year-old Tyler is very social, and thrives in an environment where he is around non-disabled students. Tyler's mom says he is part of a special needs program at Atlantic Coast High School, but does have an elective and spends his lunch hour with all of the "typical" high school students, which he prefers. She says he's well-liked by students throughout the school.
"He's a great kid, he's got a huge personality, he's extremely social, he's outgoing...he's a lot of fun to have around."
At an October meeting with special needs coordinators with the Duval school district Tyler and his family were told he was still on track to graduate in the 2013-2014 school year. His mother says his November report card also listed him as a junior. But on April 12th, Tyler and his mom were floored to find out that Tyler was going to have to graduate this year instead of next year. She says
"Let him have his senior year. He has earned it," says Tyler's mom.
According to the school district, changes to the special education and transition programs meant students that are 18 and had enough credits would have to take their diplomas and graduate this year.
"He will miss out on everything that goes along with having a senior year. He will not have his senior picture printed in the yearbook. He will not be able to attend prom or grad night," his mom says. "This is one of those events that everybody else gets to do and he's being denied that."
Tyler's mom says under the Individuals with Disabilites Education Act, all students with disabilites who have not either earned a standard diploma or turned 22 can stay in school until they are 22. She says they have discussed a transition plan for Tyler that would put him in the Alden Road Exceptional Student Center, but says that and the other options aren't ideal because he would only be around other disabled students, and she says that therapists and teachers who have worked with Tyler agree that he would likely regress in that kind of environment.
"Denying Tyler his senior year in full participation is to deny him a major life activity, and that is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We believe this would not happen to a student who is non-disabled."
Shelly Anderson is convinced that Tyler was pushed through the system and given credits he didn't actually attend or test out of, and she says Tyler isn't the only student to whom that has happened. She says the district has offered to let him come back and take part in the senior activities next year.
"It's not the same...it's not fair," Tyler told us.
His mom says she feels like she has exhausted every option available in trying to change this. She says the school district has stood firm on its position despite having told them in October he could still graduate next year and that even at the state level she got nowhere.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti has spoken about the issue to our partner Action News, saying that while he is sympathetic to the family and although Tyler is the age of a high school junior, he has enough credits to graduate this year as a senior. Tyler's mom says she isn't buying it.
"They say it's something they have no control over. I think there's always a chance to change things to make it right," his mom says.
She adds that the outpouring of support for Tyler has been overwhelming, and she, Tyler, and their family are thankful for everyone who has shared words of support or written the school district in their defense.
WOKV has reached out to the Duval County School District's spokesperson and offered Dr. Vitti the opportunity to interview with us on the issue and explain the school district's position in further detail.