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Special education students left out of high school graduation program feel ‘discriminated’

San Leandro High School in California also failed to order diplomas for the six graduating special education students in time for the June 9 ceremony.
From left, Jesse Haro Belmontes, Joseph Sanchez-Muñoz and Mario Juarez.
From left, Jesse Haro Belmontes, Joseph Sanchez-Muñoz and Mario Juarez.Courtesy Elena Muñoz

Months of anticipation turned to disappointment when six California special education graduating students noticed their names were not included in their high school's graduation program and their diplomas were not ordered in time for the ceremony.

Wearing his blue button-up shirt and a red bow tie to match his school's pirate-themed colors, Joseph Sanchez-Muñoz attended his San Leandro High School graduation on June 9, "super excited to make my family proud," he told NBC News.

As a student living with a rare disease after surviving cancer as a baby, graduating from high school is a milestone that holds extra significance for Joseph and his family.

But after learning he and five other special education were excluded from the graduation program, he "felt sad, depressed," Joseph, 18, said.

"I felt discriminated," Joseph's mom, Elena Muñoz, told NBC News. "Why were the kids not in there? Is it because they're special ed kids? Why did they leave them behind?"

Joseph underwent liver and kidney transplants while battling cancer. He was then diagnosed with Hao-Fountain Syndrome, a rare disease caused by mutations in the USP7 gene that can affect a wide range of physical and behavioral characteristics.

Elena Muñoz and Joseph Sanchez-Muñoz.
Elena Muñoz and Joseph Sanchez-Muñoz.Courtesy Blanca Ruelas

"They shattered a moment that I was supposed to keep in memory," Muñoz, 34, who is a health care worker in San Leandro, said. "Not knowing how long I’m going to have my son, every milestone, it’s a big milestone."

The morning after graduation, Joseph cleaned the frame where he had planned to place his high school diploma.

Muñoz and a few of the other parents and students went to pick up the diplomas up from the school but were told they would have to wait a month because they had forgotten to order them, she said.

Joseph's cap.
Joseph's cap.Courtesy Elena Muñoz

"The moms just felt like the district didn't respect us," Muñoz said.

A spokesperson for the San Leandro Unified School District told NBC News this kind of “clerical error” had not previously occurred in the special education program's history.

"We are conducting a full review of our graduation processes to ensure that a critical error like this does not occur again in the future," San Leandro High School principals said in a statement.

As part of an apology, the school promised to hand-deliver the diplomas early next week. The families already received updated graduation programs.

While their names were not initially included in the printed graduation program, Joseph and the five other graduates were able to have their names announced as they walked across the stage the day of commencement.

A group of parents are planning on taking legal action against the school, as they "just want changes of equality for all people with disabilities," Elena Muñoz said.

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