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Billings West High special needs student unable to graduate due to "age out" policy

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Posted at 6:19 PM, Mar 28, 2022

BILLINGS — Billings School District 2 has a big decision to make regarding Billings West High student Emily Pennington’s future. Emily was on track to graduate next year but is currently not allowed to because of School District 2 policy 2050.

This policy states that schools don’t have to enroll students who have reached age 19 on or before Sept. 10 of the school year in question.

Montana House Bill 233 was passed last year and allows special needs students, like Emily, to receive education up until the age of 21, but school districts can opt-out and set their own policies.

MTN news spoke with Superintendent Greg Upham on the impending decision the school board must make on whether Emily will be able to graduate next year after she turns 19 this July.

"This decision has major ripple effects. It's just not about an individual student," said Upham.

Emily is currently 18 and a junior in high school. She loves her friends, her family, and things that any other teenager enjoys.

“I really love sports, a lot,” said Emily Pennington.

Emily has down syndrome and has faced one challenge after another since she was a baby.

“She had open-heart surgery, and then she had a rare seizure disorder, and then she had leukemia all before she was three,” said her mother, Jana Pennington.

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All these complications forced Emily’s parents to make the difficult decision to hold her back a year when she was in kindergarten.

“At that time, it was just better for her educationally and also her social development to hold her back to be with that younger set of kids,” said Jana.

The Penningtons knew that when they made the decision to hold Emily back but thought things would be different nearly a decade later.

“I said, I’m sure there’s going to be new legislation within that 12-year span that would allow her to be able to graduate,” Jana said.

The family had hoped House Bill 233 was that new legislation. The law passed last year and allowed school districts to extend high school education to special needs students up until the age of 21.

Superintendent Greg Upham says that the school board hasn’t made any decisions yet because of the ripple effect it could cause.

“It’s not about Emily, I mean Emily is obviously at the core of this, but it’s about all the students that a decision like this would impact moving forward,” Upham said.

He says he worried about the precedent and whether the state would provide enough funding in the future for other students.

“This is all making sure that as we look at this and as we look to the future can we support our students as we’re required to support them moving, by adding more students to more years of schooling,” Upham said.

The district is still evaluating the situation.

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While they do, the Penningtons aren’t just sitting back.

"We haven't received any answers as to why she hasn't been put on the board agenda yet," Jana said.

They're frustrated they haven't received any acknowledgment from the school board or the superintendent on the matter.

“Just because it’s a policy and it’s been there for ten years doesn’t mean it’s a good policy,” Jana said.

They aren’t giving up on their miracle baby because they know her future is bright.

“I kind of want like working at being a teacher, to teach kids, like little kids, like to be in their next education, being in high school,” Emily said.

Jana Pennington urges other parents to attend the next School District 2 board meeting on April 18, to not only advocate for Emily but to advocate for their own children as well.