A New Jersey teenager and her mother are suing a local school system after officials allegedly forced her and her friends to leave their prom early because they have special needs, court papers state.
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Lily Doyle, now 19, spent May 17 preparing for her senior prom much like any other high school student would. She got her hair and makeup professionally done before slipping into her emerald green gown and preparing for the night.
“The emotions were really high before the prom even happened because everyone was so happy and excited to watch their kids go off to their senior prom,” Doyle, who has Down Syndrome, told FOX Business on Tuesday.
Her mother, Katherine Trusky, had invited about 75 people, including 11 of Doyle’s friends – and nine students with special needs – to get together beforehand for pictures with family, each other and in front of a black stretch limousine.
“It was a total blast, a total great sendoff,” Trusky recalled. “It was, you know, a pinnacle moment in their lives. And obviously for the families to see our kids going to their senior proms was just emotional, remarkable, it was fantastic.”
But what was supposed to be a happy night ended with tears shed and even alleged threats for security to be called after school staffers assigned to assist Doyle and her group “forced” the kids to leave nearly an hour early, and before the prom king and queen were even announced, according to a New Jersey Superior Court lawsuit.
The court papers were filed earlier this month and accuse the Board of Education of the Township of Hillsborough, Hillsborough High School Principal Karen Bingert and several school staffers of “blatant discrimination.”
Michael Callahan, director of human resources for Hillsborough Township Public Schools, said in an emailed statement to FOX Business the school district denies all allegations 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,” he said.
Trusky had received an email from the school social worker the day before the prom, in which the staffer wrote: “The prom ends at 11:30 and limos are permitted to begin arriving at 11:15 p.m. for pick up.” The $90 event ticket was emblazoned with a similar message.
But around 10:05 p.m., two of Doyle’s friends overheard one of the school’s special education aides, Pamela Figard, call the limo driver to tell him he “better be at the prom at 10:35 to pick up students,” the lawsuit states. When they asked why so early, Figard allegedly ignored them.
Figard, who works with Doyle on the school's Special Olympics track team, and the other aides allegedly corralled the teenagers in preparation for their 10:35 p.m. sendoff and “forced” students with disabilities from the dancefloor or their table, Trusky said and court papers state.
We were begging them to let us stay a little bit longer
When one of the students asked Figard to reach out to her parents, and tried showing her a text message from the parents saying they were allowed to stay, the staffer again ignored the student and threatened to call security, Doyle and Trusky said.
“Figard said her decision was motivated by a concern that the students’ disabilities would make it difficult for them to safely navigate crowded hallways,” the lawsuit states, noting that Figard had referenced how one of Doyle’s classmates was visually impaired. But “when [Doyle] and her friends – including the visually-impaired student – walked the short distance from the ballroom to their limousine, they were unaccompanied.”
Figard, Bingert and the school social worker did not respond to FOX Business’ requests for comment.
Doyle and her friends, both those with and without special needs, left their senior prom, with some in tears. Meanwhile, when the limo arrived for the students at 10:45 p.m., the driver was turned away because it was too early, the suit states.
No one from the school notified the parents of the unplanned scheduled change, Trusky said.
It’s out of character for Doyle and her friends to argue with authority, the mother noted.
“When they are treated a certain way and when they are told what to do, for them to be able to rise up and be begging and crying and pleading to stay really speaks to the heart of how much they were taken advantage of,” she said. “The only thing these parents wanted for these students was to have the most inclusive, exciting night of their lives. And they were robbed of it.”
Doyle said she was “humiliated.”
After the fact, Trusky submitted a formal complaint and the school district launched a Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying, or HIB, investigation.
On June 17, the district sent Trusky a letter, in which officials acknowledged that Doyle and her group were not supposed to have left the prom as early as they had but said: “[I]t is not reasonable to perceive the alleged acts were motivated by the students’ disabilities.”
The response was “heartbreaking,” Trusky said, but made her want to be an example for her daughter.
"It's why we proceeded with our legal right. I cannot be an example for my daughter and her friends if I don’t stand for justice," she said. "I'm teaching my daughter that in this world there is going to be a lot of injustice that she's going to see and she going to experience it. She can experience it because she has a disability. ... She's going to experience it because she's a woman. And I want her to have a voice to say this is unacceptable."