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  • Yearbook Labels Some Students as “Mentally Retarded”

    It looks like students at Mesquite High School in Dallas, Texas are going to have to wait a little bit longer for their anxiously awaited yearbooks.  Last week, school officials recalled the students’ yearbooks after realizing that a controversial section of the yearbook “labeled special needs students as blind, deaf, as well as mentally retarded.”

    District Spokeswoman Laura Jobe believes the yearbook section devoted to students with special needs was created “with the best intentions and was not meant to ridicule or disparage anyone in any way. We believe the students didn’t understand the term ‘retarded’ was not acceptable.” Many students agree with Ms. Jobe and assert that the purpose of creating the yearbook page dedicated to students with disabilities was to make the students feel “part of the school community.” As Iman Hijas, a senior at Mesquite High School believes, “everyone wants to be included, not left out. I think it was nice to make the page.”

    While the school commends the students effort in trying to make the special needs students feel included, and it appears that the publication of the yearbook page was inadvertent and an overlook on the part of school officials, some parents are still outraged. Christie Rawson, a parent of a high school senior at Mesquite High School, states that school officials  “should have flagged this error during proofreading.” Some students also believe that the language and later publication of the yearbook was “appalling and disgraceful.” Furthermore, the word “retarded” is considered so reprehensible by some organizations, such as the Special Olympics, that they have made it their mission to eradicate use of the “r-word” in schools all over the country. As Special Olympics athlete Karleigh Jones explains “The word ‘retard’ is considered hate speech because it offends people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as the people that care for and support them. It alienates and excludes them. It also emphasizes the negative stereotypes surrounding people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

    Aside from the language controversy surrounding the publication of the yearbook, school officials decided to recall the yearbook on additional grounds as well. Pursuant to a specific Texas state law, a yearbook publisher must obtain permission from parents of special needs students in order to publish the students’ photographs in the school yearbook. In this case, because the yearbook publisher did not obtain permission from the parents of these students, the school believes, that in order to comply with the law of the state, the yearbooks must be recalled.

    In response to the recent mistake in publication and controversy surrounding this year’s yearbook, the school district has employed additional staff members to work with the yearbook staff and to further supervise the publication of the yearbook.  The school district has also issued a formal public apology to both the parents and students, stating that school officials “earnestly regret that the term ‘mentally retarded’ was included and offer our apologies to our students and their families.  The use of the words ‘mentally retarded’ is something we would never condone.”

    As graduation draws near and yearbooks are made available to a wide range of graduating students across the country, additional steps should be implemented by your school to make sure that your yearbook complies with the laws of your state. Additional precautions should also be taken in order to ensure that your yearbook does not insult students, thereby sparking outrage in the school community. If your institution has questions or concerns about this topic and you would like further information, please email Cynthia Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357 – 3753. A special thanks to Hayley Dryer, a third-year law student at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, for helping with this post.