The families of several Harwood Union students with special needs are upset that their children were less than fully included in the school’s holiday concert on December 6.

The three children were among six children with special needs who were seated in the auditorium when the rest of the chorus rehearsed backstage. According to the parents, after two other groups performed, the chorus, seated in the auditorium, went on stage and sang one song before director Diane Phillips walked down and brought McKayla Kingsbury up to the stage to join the choir.

Several more songs were performed before Phillips went back to the audience and brought up Faith and Grace DeFelice. The rest of the children with special needs were brought up and placed at the ends of the group and performed the final two songs.

Kelly DeFelice and Troy Kingsbury are upset that their children were not included with their peers, that they were sent to wait in the auditorium while the rest of the group rehearsed and that assurances given to them by Harwood’s special education director Michael Woods were changed. McKayla Kingsbury, 15, has Williams disease. Grace DeFelice, 19, is in a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy and is developmentally delayed. Faith DeFelice, 16, has Down syndrome and ADHD.

“We learned on December 2 that Diane Phillips planned to have McKayla sing only two songs, so we raised the issue and were assured Michael Woods had spoken to Diane Phillips, and she had agreed that all of the students would perform all six songs,” Kingsbury said.

“It was heartbreaking to watch those children sit there, unable to receive the high five from Diane Phillips, brought up and placed on stage individually rather than with their friends,” he said.

DeFelice said she relied on information from other parents that all children would be included in all songs and told her daughter Faith as much.

“She was very excited to be up on stage. I brought the girls to the practice room and was told they did not belong there, to go to the auditorium where they sat alone with the other students with special needs, separated from the rest of the group,” DeFelice said.

“When their portion of the concert started, the other kids went up on stage and our kids were left in the audience once again. Diane Phillips came down and took McKayla Kingsbury by the hand and walked her up the steps for the second song and left my kids and the others behind. Only for the last two songs did my kids and the others come up and they were placed on the ends of the group, not intermingled with the group,” she added.

“Faith was so excited about the concert. She was coming home every night and singing these songs and was so excited and proud. Afterwards I tried to keep it light with her and told her I thought she did great and that I was really, really proud of her. It’s just awfully hurtful,” DeFelice said.

The day after the concert, Kingsbury raised the issue with Harwood Principal Lisa Atwood. She responded to Kingsbury the same day, writing.

“I have followed up on your concerns regarding McKayla’s participation in the holiday chorus performance last evening. Michael Woods, Donarae Pike and I met with Diane Phillips, the choral teacher, this morning and she was able to respond to our concerns.

“McKayla participated in five of the six songs; however, we recognize that because she did not participate in the first song, it inadvertently separated her from the larger chorus during that piece. This created an awkward transition to get her to the stage to begin the second piece. We apologize that this lack of logistical foresight gave you the impression that she wasn’t participating to the same extent as some of the other students in the chorus. It was important to Diane to have McKayla re-join the group and participate in the rest of the songs.

“As always, we try to make our courses and curriculum as accessible and inclusive as we possibly can. We have discussed this with Diane and will continue to plan accordingly for future performances.”

Donarae Dawson Pike is the special education coordinator for Washington West. She said that no one intentionally treated any students differently and said that there may be differing interpretations of what it means to participate fully.

“We have investigated the concert and took steps to see what went on. It was a judgment call by the teacher. Kids participate at different levels and we try to include them as much as possible. Some sang two songs, some sang five of six. To us, five of six is fully included. We apologized to the parents and regret if they were upset. Our policy is to include and our mission statement talks about inclusion,” Dawson Pike said.

Kingsbury disagreed, “McKayla was included in five of six songs and brought to the stage separately. Inclusion shouldn’t mean to stick out.”

Dawson Pike said that the decision on when to bring which kids to the stage was the teacher’s judgment call at the time of the performance.

“In the moment of a performance sometimes you have to make accommodations and sometimes a teacher might make an alternative plan,” Dawson Pike said.

Asked whether a teacher has the authority to override a plan or policy put in place by Michael Woods, she said no and said that she could not comment on how that is being handled because of personal privacy rules.

“Harwood and WWSU are dealing with that issue. It is being investigated and there will probably be some changes to the March concert,” she said.