Cobb student with Down syndrome who was excluded from graduation addresses school board

Ashlynn Rich telling the board how disappointed she was to not sit with her friends at graduation

Photo: Ashlynn Rich told the board how disappointed she was to not sit with her friends at graduation; all photos by Rebecca Gaunt

By Rebecca Gaunt

Ashlynn Rich told Superintendent Chris Ragsdale and the Cobb County school board Thursday how it hurt to be excluded from her own graduation from Sprayberry High School.

The first few rows were filled with her supporters wearing red and stickers that said “Nobody Puts Pop Queen in the Hallway.” (Rich runs a small bakery business called Pop Queen Baked Goods).

Friends Lukas Deisen and Christopher Yancy supported Ashlynn Rich at the board meeting

“I was very excited to graduate with my friends, but instead I was left in a hallway until it was my turn on stage. After, I felt mistreated and discriminated against because I was not allowed to sit with my classmates,” she said. 

Rich has Down syndrome and graduated Sprayberry with honors. However, she did not get to enjoy the ceremony. She and five other students were kept separate from the rest of the graduating class, unable to see the stage, and escorted out after quickly receiving their diplomas.

Rich’s supporters stood while she spoke

Her mother, Linda Ramirez, watched from the audience, confused as to why she couldn’t find her in the crowd of caps.

“Graduation is a once in a lifetime event. My daughter was made to feel different, separated from her peers in the moment that she had earned. The act of segregation not only hurt Ashlynn, but sent troubling messages about how we value our students with disabilities. This is not the first time she has been excluded by Cobb,” Ramirez said during public comment.

She also said she has filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.

Ragsdale apologized to Rich and her family at the end of his superintendent remarks.

He said an investigation revealed it was a personnel, not policy, issue.

“It appears to be a decision made by an individual employee, perhaps with the best intentions, that should have been made by a parent. Without getting into personnel details, it is being handled as a personnel matter,” he said.

Moving forward, the district will formalize the graduation consultation process to require an agreement between staff and parents in writing before the ceremony.

“You have been successful in delivering your message so that every student who has an exceptionality will be able to take part however the family chooses,” Ragsdale said.

Post 2 school board member Becky Sayler announced plans last week to try and get a policy update on the July agenda. 

Though it is already against the law to exclude students with disabilities, Sayler wrote on Facebook, “Adding a statement in IKD about the participation of special education students in ceremonies, like graduations, is important to explicitly state our value as a district that is inclusive. It is not already listed in our policy about ceremonies.”

The district’s initial reaction to the matter on social media has also been the subject of criticism. 

When Rich’s story first began to circulate online, the district denied the incident occurred. In one of several comments responding to Facebook posts about Rich’s exclusion, the district communications team wrote, “This would make us sad if it were true as well. Thankfully, it’s not. Social media continues to be the worst place to find accurate information about students and schools…this post is wildly inaccurate.”

Parent Tovah Ringland expressed her disappointment at the afternoon work session over the Facebook comments.

“Responses like the one posted by the county on social media make the situation worse. Maybe next time the district can fact check, investigate, and make changes so that this mistake doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.