Call for Action to Support Autistic Student Facing Severe Discrimination


I am reposting this verbatim from a mailing list. As a friend just said, “That’s A) disgusting, B) deserves a lawsuit.”

Call for Immediate Action:

Below is a letter from a mother regarding an egregious example of mistreatment of her daughter, a member of our special needs community. Brigid, a girl with autism and a serious physical injury, will not be graduating with her class, and will lose out on a scholarship that she has earned to Cornell College because her school district has refused to accommodate her special needs!

We cannot let this stand. As individuals, family members and friends of specials needs, and people who believe in justice, we must immediately voice our support for Brigid and demand that she be given credit for her work and be allowed to graduate with her class! Our children with special needs within the public and private school system depend upon our taking a stand in situations like this, so that other children do not suffer what Brigid has been forced to endure.

Please join with me to demand justice for Brigid, who has worked so hard to appease a school system that has refused to provide her with appropriate accommodations, discriminated against her and publicly humiliated her! Below are the email addresses of officials of the Catholic Diocese of Portland, the Principal of Catherine McAuley High school where Brigid attended and Department of Education officials from the state of Maine.

Please inundate their email inboxes and telephone with a voice of support for Brigid. We must show her and the rest of the world that the special needs community supports its own and stands together against discrimination and abuse of this sort!

Here are the email addresses and phone numbers to contact:

Bill Wood, Parish Services Coordinator
Disability Services

Bishop Richard Malone, Th.D.
Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland
1-207-773-0182 – fax

Principal of Catherine McAuley Highschool
Mary Kelleher
1-207-797-3804 – fax

David Noble Stockford
Policy Director and Team Leader, Special Services
Maine Department of Education
1-207-624-6651 – fax

Pam Rosen
Maine Advisory Council on Education of Children with Disabilities
Maine Department of Education
1-207-624-6651 – fax

Rhonda J. Greenhaw Wood

WOARN – Wisconsin Organizing for Autism Rights Now

Here is the letter her mother wrote the Catholic Diocese of Portland:

Dear Mr. W,

I am contacting you because of your role in Disability Services for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. My daughter has attended Catherine McAuley High school for 4 years. She is a wonderful young woman, who works very hard, and has suffered greatly from the misunderstandings, intolerance, and most importantly, from the code of silence surrounding disabilities at McAuley High School.

Brigid is a student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. In addition, she sustained a closed head injury in March, 2005. This injury resulted in her spending the remainder of her sophomore year at the outpatient clinic of New England Rehabilitation Hospital. Brigid strove hard to regain lost skills and to relearn new skills. She completed the coursework for her sophomore year 2 days before her junior year started.

Since that time, Brigid has been absent from school for extended periods of time, due to a seizure disorder resulting from the closed head injury. She has also missed school due to unrelated surgeries. The Principal has always been informed of absences and concerns by Brigid’s physicians and myself. Brigid was, on several occasions, under physician’s orders to refrain from attending school.

Throughout this time, the Administration of the High School has consistently prevented staff from pertinent knowledge regarding Brigid’s absences. The school nurse was not given copies of physician’s notes, letters or recommendations. The Guidance staff was unaware of many challenges this child faces until the middle of this academic year.

As a result, Brigid has been repeatedly academically penalized for physician ordered absences. This is discrimination. She has been humiliated in public. She has been afforded few accommodations, and little, or no, understanding or compassion. Silence and withholding of information by the Administration have been tools of abuse.

The stress of this constant abuse to a young disabled girl led her to a suicide attempt this academic year. With full knowledge of this, the Administration made no changes in the code of silence. Teachers were left to believe that Brigid was truant, lazy, unwilling to work, when, in fact, the opposite was true. Brigid received a failing grade for an assignment involving small motor control, strength, and coordination.

She was unable to do this assignment to the teacher’s expectations because of a documented disability. Brigid received class participation grades of 0% for physician ordered absences. Work delayed due to seizures were graded as late assignments.

On her return to school following a month of seizures, Brigid completed 3 weeks of work within one week, while keeping up with her current assignments. She did this in order to participate in an extra curricular activity. My daughter made a Herculean effort to complete work, as if she were not disabled, and succeeded. Her reward was cruel. She was pulled off of the bus in front of her peers and informed that she may not attend the extracurricular activity she worked so hard for.

This is just one example.

This Spring, Brigid’s counselor and Sweetser Case management and her Neurologist determined that attending Catherine McAuley High School was adverse to Brigid’s health. Brigid continued to work at home on her assignments, I continued to deliver these to staff as I was able. Some staff were not notified that Brigid would not be in school or that assignments were to be delivered to the office for me to pick up. Consequently, the assignments were withheld.

It took several weeks for Brigid to regain the strength and courage to enter school again. Two weeks ago, the Principal informed Brigid’s counselor that this effort would ensure that Brigid could graduate with her class. With help, Brigid managed to attend school every day. She made a concentrated effort to complete all work to the best of her ability, communicate with staff, and do well on her tests.

Today was the last day of classes. Brigid had work completed. Quizzes, tests, final exams complete. Brigid turned in her essay for English class. Brigid had been one of the few students who had read the assigned text. She received one of the highest grades in the quiz about the book. She had a 30 minute conversation with the teacher about the book in early April. Following this conversation, the teacher reported at a meeting with Administration, myself, and Sweetser that Brigid knew the material well. She later requested that Brigid write an additional essay about the book.

Today, when Brigid gave this essay to the teacher, the teacher informed Brigid that she had decided not to accept the work. Brigid will receive a zero, and fail.

A similar occurrence took place last term. Although the Principal told myself, staff, and Brigid, that work outstanding (due to medical concerns) would be accepted until a stated date, one teacher capriciously decided to ignore the Principal’s decision. Brigid received a failing grade for doing all of her work very well and giving it to the teacher on time.

The Principal’s responses have been that teachers make their own decisions for their own classes and that this matter is not in her control.

Again, Brigid has learned that some people are not true to their word and that this is considered acceptable by an educational leader and a spiritual leader.

This most recent decision on the part of one staff member, if left unchecked, will compromise Brigid’s future. Brigid will be unable to attend Cornell College, or take advantage of their generous offer of a four year academic scholarship as well as financial aide.

The code of silence at McAuley which surrounds disabilities, combined with the lack of acceptance, accommodation, charity, or decency has damaged my daughter’s educational experience, spiritual experience, sense of trust, and quality of life.

I would have notified you of these egregious events during the past 3 years, but I did not know of the existence of your office and ministry. During the past year, I have notified the Bishop, as well as leaders of Catholic Education in Maine. I have attempted to work constructively with the Disability Rights Center, Sweetser Case Management, Family Crisis Services, physicians, social workers, counselors and the Administration of McAuley High School. My daughter has suffered. She has learned some very hard lessons of loss from the individuals entrusted with her spiritual, moral and academic education.

I do not know if you can help my daughter in any way. I appreciate the time you have taken to read this.

Gayle Fitzpatrick

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

30 responses »

  1. I will be sure to write and will also post it on my local ASA message board.

    Sad to say, I’m not very surprised to read this very sad story. My NT daughter used to attend Catholic school and for part of a year she needed a few accomodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The school administration and staff, after stalling for months and my daughter suffering emotionally/academically the whole time, said that they “don’t do accomodations.” Well, any type of school that receives federal funds needs to consider making accomodations. Most schools receive federal funds under the USDA milk lunch program and the Title I reading program. My daughter has since been thriving in public school and, with a few initial accomodations that she no longer needs, she went from failing to being on the honor roll.

  2. This reminds me of the general unhelpfulness of my own Catholic high school. Ugh. It’s disgusting that this kind of thing can happen over and over…

  3. OMG. Can we say someone needs to get ahold of the media up there and do this girl some justice. What a travisty that they have done to this girl who obviously is trying so hard to make it in life.

  4. I’m not a lawyer, but as I see it there are two laws that are likely to apply: the “IDEA” law (used to be PL 94-142; I forget what the letters stand for, but it’s basically the special education law); and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. And it’s not just schools receiving federal funding that are covered. It’s the law for public services to provide reasonable accommodations, period. (Though I should mention that I know religious entities in general have sometimes gotten themselves exempt from some types of laws in the past, so that’s still something to be checked.)

    Re, lawyer: if they’re lucky, maybe they can find something pro bono.

  5. should this “” be this “”?

    sorry to be a nuisance, but it won’t work spelled wrong, will it?

  6. This is part of an email i got back from RC Diocese of Portland website: “Since Catherine McAuley is not a school under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland we have no connection with its operation. I will, however, make sure to forward your e-mail to the appropriate party…in this case, the Sisters of Mercy.”
    Sisters of Mercy local website seems to be this:

  7. This is the body of an e-mail that the Thomas B. Whittaker Memorial Foundation sent to the Sister who is the principal of the school. The Whittaker Foundation is in full support of Brigid and her mother. The message was refused as spam without them even opening it. Sending messages to the school by e-mail will be futile now.

    It is my understanding that your school was founded by the Sisters of Mercy. Now if my research is correct the mission statement of the Sisters of mercy claims the following:

    Sisters of Mercy are women who commit their lives to serving God’s people, especially those who are sick, poor and uneducated. In the spirit of the Gospel, our mission is to help people to overcome the obstacles that keep them from living full and dignified lives. A life of prayer and community animates and supports us in our mission.

    Now lets look at each part of this and review the meaning of the words.

    *Sisters of Mercy are women who commit their lives to serving God’s people*
    This means it is your responsibility to serve ALL of God’s people. There are no clauses that say you can only serve those you choose to serve.
    Now lets look at the clause that does exist.
    *especially those who are sick, poor and uneducated.
    *this means that if you have to make a choice based on limited resources that those who are sick, poor, and uneducated get first priority over those who do not fall in that category.

    Lets continue here
    *In the spirit of the Gospel,
    *now I am assuming this is in reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ the son of God who came here,was born of the Virgin Mary, lived, ministered, taught, was persecuted, died as an atonement for our sins, and rose again on the third day and after visits with his apostles ascended to heaven. If that is the Gospel we are talking about then we have a mutual understanding about the nature of the rest of this dialog.

    *our mission is to help people to overcome the obstacles that keep them from living full and dignified lives.
    *I believe this says that you are obligated to help all people that fall into the categories previously listed to overcome whatever obstacles in their life is preventing them from being a success. Now that is assuming they desire your help and are putting forth a good faith effort of their own. I would never imply that you were responsible to fix every broken human that will not strive to help themselves. Even Christ did not do that. He prayed for the Pharisees and Sadducees but he never forcibly tried to fix their misconceptions nor did he try to forcibly change their behaviors. Now if we are in agreement about this lets move on.

    *A life of prayer and community animates and supports us in our mission.
    *This means that you spend much time in prayer and you are a member of a community of women that support one another through prayer, discussion, and intelligent conversation. Inasmuch as the Sisters of Mercy are not cloistered I assume that you also consider yourself to be part of the greater community of mankind which includes the cities, counties, states, and countries to which you belong. If you are part of that community then you must admit that you are subject to its laws given of course that the law in question does not directly violate your moral beliefs. I would not expect you to be forced to serve in a place that performed abortions or condoned euthanasia.

    If we are in agreement on all these points then I beg to burden you with a question.

    Please explain to me and every other Disability Rights Activist along with the entire Autistic Community
    How are you living the spirit of the mission statement of your order by refusing proper legal accommodations to a disabled student and by refusing those **accommodations adding an obstacle to her living a full and dignified life rather than helping her to overcome the already significant obstacles that she faces.

    *I fully understand why many orders have no mirrors because of the sin of vanity but in this case I suggest that you seek out the nearest mirror and look yourself in the face and see if you like what you see. God sees the intent of your soul and I cannot. I do not know you personally so I will refrain from my urge to slander you. I just want you to go look in the mirror and see yourself through Brigid’s eyes. May the Lord forgive you your trespasses. I will pray daily for your eternal soul for in the Words of our Lord as recorded by Saint Matthew in the 25th chapter of his Gospel

    31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
    32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
    33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
    34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
    35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
    36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
    37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
    38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
    39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
    40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
    41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
    42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
    43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
    44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
    45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
    46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

    Which side do you stand on. I know where I stand and if that girl does not graduate I can promise you that you have not heard the last from me or my organization. I will exercise every legal right I have and every media connection I have to make sure everyone in the country and through youtube everyone in the world knows exactly how Brigid has been treated by your school.

    Athena Whittaker Blakely PAMOAK
    (Proud Aspie Mom Of Autistic Kids)
    Thomas B. Whittaker Memorial Foundation

  8. Athena Whittaker Blakely, please could you tell us the website of your foundation? Google is no help. I get something with ‘spydertyme’, and while the spelling looks like your nick, it says the site is not there…

    sorry to be nosy, but i just wanted to know more about the organization…

  9. Pingback: Carol Rutz’s Annexe » Blog Archive » This is for Brigid of Wisconsin!

  10. I am going to write to all the addresses anyway. Maybe if they get inundated, even though it is not their purview, they will do something out of exasperation…. here’s hoping.

  11. I own Spydertyme and we have taken down the foundation website temporarily while we rework it. The web address you have is correct but the site is down. You want to know more about us so I will tell you. We are a foundation that was named in memory of my father who I lost just a few weeks after one of my Aspie sons killed himself December 16, 2003. Dad did not cope well with the loss of a grandchild and his diabetes and heart problems mixed with his grief and being an Aspie just devoured his body. He went into a coma on Christmas Day of 2003 and we withdrew life support between Christmas and New Years and buried him Jan 4, 2004. In the middle of all this I was dealing with my youngest being diagnosed with Autism which made two of my babies. After that I began serious research into Autism since my belief in the theories of mercury toxicity was shattered. After doing extensive genealogy and finding what I call overwhelming evidence that Autism in my family is genetic. I realized that my father was an Aspie and so is my brother. With the permission of my brother and sister I started a foundation (we are still waiting for our “official” 501c3 status which is why we do not solicit funds right now). We have a few generous benefactors that do not care about the tax status and a couple of businesses that give a portion of their profits to us even though the tax benefits are not there for them yet either. Anyway, I digress. The foundation has three employees and 13 volunteers. We do advocacy work on behalf of adults on the spectrum that lack the ability to advocate for themselves easily. We also advocate for anyone that is openly being discriminated against. Through my personal religious affiliation I have some very important media contacts that I have used in the past and only use in the most extreme of circumstances. They have been kind enough to help me “suggest strongly” to people that they needed to change their actions. We took on one of the “big box” electronic stores and won. I have contacted the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas which is the order that runs the school and spoken to both their main office and their regional office and both were unaware of the situation. The text of the e-mail I attempted to send was reviewed with them as well as the letter the mother wrote. Hopefully this will help and if it does not then we will attempt to do more. I am trying to locate the mother. This woman has been through “HELL” with the schools there. She had to take the school board of the town in which she lives to court over her autistic son. Now she is having a war with her daughter’s school. I really feel for her and the children. With regard to the website, I am the mother of three diagnosed ASD children, I am a full time student at a local community college taking my gen ed courses before transferring to the university to get my Family Life (family oriented social work) degree. I have my Early Childhood Development Certificate and my NC Early Childhood Credential which says I am a high priced babysitter (ok it is a little more than that but not much). I am married to an Aspie who is also a full time student. I work or go to school about 60 hours per week and the Designated Activity Device (DAD) in our home is the primary caretaker of our children. We have a wonderful person named Tammy that is our greatest blessing because she takes the babies for us during school for as much as two weeks at a time. She is paid for some of those hours through Medicaid since our babies get SSI and the rest she does out of love for the children and support for all we are doing. My husband runs the business Spydertyme Services which is a web design and computer repair business. We also do a little networking. I help when I can. So maybe, if I am lucky, I will get the website back up by Christmas unless someone gets me about 30 more volunteers. Most of my volunteers work 40 to 50 hours a week. These are dedicated souls and I pray each night before I lay down to sleep that the Lord will bring them great blessings in their lives. I don’t know what else I can tell you about the foundation. The one thing I will say for my staff is they have never had a challenge over which they have not prevailed.

  12. Pingback: Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Autism News

  13. I’ve never posted on this blog before, but there’s a first time for everything, and I hope this works.

    I live in Portland, Maine, where this is taking place. I want to know if there is anything I can do to help .

    Athena Whittaker – I would love to volunteer for your organization. I have been trying to get involved in anything to do with autism and helping autistic people for years but never sure how to, transportation was problem until recently too (portland has buses tho). Is your organization based in Portland? I hope so. My email is if you would like to email me. I wasn’t aware of your organization before.

    It is just terrible what they are doing and they should be stopped somehow. That girl worked so hard.

    Looking it up online I see that Gayle is the same woman whose son was the subject of the Falmouth playground discrimination case that made national news a couple of years ago. I knew the name sounded familiar. I didn’t know she had two ASD kids. I think she is in the AANE group that I go to, but I wonder why I didnt hear about this on their mailing list (Maine chapter of aspergers assn of new england)

    Really enjoy reading the blog.

  14. I agree it is an unfortunate circumstance. For clarification, the Individuals with Disabilites Education Act (IDEA) only applies to students in “public” schools. When a student is enrolled in a private school, they in essence forfeit their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

  15. This is off topic, but I had trouble finding the right place to bring this up:

    Some months ago, I looked briefly at I THINK it was Muskie’s blog (in any case, linked either from your blog or from and saw that her interests include disability access during emergencies and disasters (unless I have her confused with someone else). I just now found out that the National Council on Disability is now doing a public consultation process (from now until July 16) to learn about some of the best practices that have been done to ensure that disabled people are included at all stages of emergency preparedness, planning, relief, etc. I’d be happy to forward the announcement to Muskie if I can be instructed in how. I also have a bunch of other materials, research, etc related to disaster preparation and mitigation for disabled people, both in the US and in developing countries that I’d be happy to pass along as well.


  16. Re: bias re: Rankowski

    Mr. Wood:

    It’s sad that someone of your stand in the community would allow defamation a group as wonderful and caring as the Sisters of Mercy because of one individual’s comments. Best senario before comment is to acquire all facts of the story.

    [I am a mother of children who graduated after dealing with disabilities in high school – not by defaming a school, but continuing their education in alternative methods. I am a teacher with experience in both public and private education. I am also an aunt to a young man who has Aspergers syndrome. So I understand multi-sides of the situation]

    It’s sad that a parent has to threaten to sue any school system in order to get her children to graduate. The Maine Education Department has minimum requirements that need to be fulfilled by all schools and students. Other ways for a child to complete school are HomeSchooling and alternative education means (which I pursued when my children encountered problem health needs). Many private schools are not set-up to handle special needs students. The Maine Public Education provides wonderful opportunies for Special Needs students.

    In said case of B.Rankowski, the laws of education were followed by McAuley, the student may have failed to accomplish her end of the requirements, and was not discriminated against legally. Actually, the school community and the Sisters of Mercy went far above and beyond in order to accomodate this student and her mother. They even allowed her to graduate against the advice of a number of her teachers and school community. The Rankowski’s may not have completely provide the school with proof of Brigid’s stated handicap, which was their responsibility. A school cannot accomodate special needs children without good information of their special needs on file.

    You should acquire all aspects of an issue before commenting upon them. (Someone may also check Brigid’s work schedule during her class absences … can a person not fulfill school requirements but be fit and allowed to work during class hours?)

    I suggest a public apology to the Sisters of Mercy in Portland, Maine, for criticizing them public before complete information and understanding was acquired.

    Thank you for keeping a more open mind all around.

    Terrilynn Dubreuil

    Windham, ME

    cc: Diocese of Portland

  17. Ms. Dubreuil, when the housing project that I live in was made inaccessible to me by concrete dust that triggered my asthma and made me have to visit the emergency room on multiple occasions, I was told by the mayor of the city that I should simply be grateful to the housing authority for providing me housing at all, that the housing authority was full of wonderful and caring people, and that we should be grateful for everything that was done for us and not complain.

    I didn’t buy it from them: If we had not protested in public we would not have gotten anywhere, we’d tried everything short of it — and it worked, despite the fact that we were a lot more scathing to the housing authority than this mother has been to this school.

    I’m not buying it from you, especially since you work at the school. This is about accessibility, not about how caring people are. Sometimes the legal system is the only way to obtain access to something, and it is not some sort of shameful and horrid thing to use it when other attempts have failed. You make it sound like this mother is simply improper for trying to fight for her child’s rights when other avenues have failed.

    You can see in the above letter that the information was provided to the school, but someone in the administration refused to pass on the information to other people who worked there who needed the information. If you are one of the people who did not get the information for that reason, why are you insisting that the family simply did not provide it?

    This family has every right to make this public whether or not you happen to like the fact that it says bad things about a school you work at. Would’ve been a lot easier for you guys to just make things accessible to this student. You’re also teetering right on the edge of revealing private personal information about a former student. Is that allowed? It sounds like you want to make the family look bad to save the school’s reputation or something.

  18. Are there any updates to this story?

    Terrilynn: public apologies to the sisters of Mercy? Seems to me it should be the opposite……they should apologize to Brigid’s family.


  19. Hi, I just found this while google searching my name. So I was allowed to march at graduation, but they insisted I complete my Math credit. I took an online class while attending college and graduated officially October 31st. I am now attending Cornell College full time and trying to put this tragedy behind me. I am a leader at college and working on breaking ground for disabled students. I only hope that the other disabled students who are still at McAuley, and will go into McAuley, will be able to have any form of accommodation.

  20. Excellent news, Brigid!

    I’m happy for you. I have had very hard times in the not too distant past and it takes time to get over. very different circumstances, but still difficult not to get angry over at times. You will feel better over time, but don’t kick yourself if you have down moments. That’s only natural after going through what you did.

    take care


  21. Brigid….It is wonderful you have held tight to your dreams and realized your goals despite all the obstacles….I hope your experience makes it easier
    for others at the school. Best regards in your
    present school and in the future….

  22. Pingback: Carol Rutz's Annexe :: This is for Brigid of Maine!

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