Lauded MESD annual event faces uncertain future

COURTESY: KRISTIN HILFIKER - Molly Fowler dances with a friend around her breathing equipment at the Multnomah Education Service District Special Needs Prom in 2015. The Multnomah Education Service District Special Needs Prom is happening this year, despite questions from a former employee on what happened to past donations to the prom.

The regional Special Needs Prom put on by MESD has attracted national attention, including from the Obama administration, for being a program that brings this typical high school rite of passage to several hundred kids with disabilities.

Brett Bigham, the 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year, formerly managed the prom, and says he began to worry in February when volunteer groups and parents contacted him saying they hadn’t gotten invitations for this year’s event.

The district and Bigham parted ways last summer over a firestorm of cross-allegations of absenteeism and retaliation over sexual-orientation discrimination complaints.

By the time Bigham was put on administrative leave last March, he estimates he had donated several thousand dollars to a prom account. Most of his award money, plus speaking fees from his year as Teacher of the Year and several other donation sources were in there, he claims.

“I figured when I had left we had at least enough for four more years of prom,” he says. Bigham ran the previous prom on about a $300 annual budget — which mostly paid for cookies. Flowers came from Bigham’s garden and students paid admission to cover the venue fee.

MESD would not supply documentation to the Portland Tribune about the status of a prom account, if it was closed or even if it ever existed. As of Feb. 23, key details such as location and date of the prom were still up in the air. Bigham says those things used to be firmed up in December.

However, two weeks later, on March 8, a district spokeswoman said the date and venue were finalized. Additionally, this year’s prom has a much-higher budget of $1,500, coming from special education funds, and students will not be charged admission.

The district also is hoping to phase out its own prom for special-needs students, hoping students can attend proms offered by their home-district high schools instead.

“Our interest and (the) interest of our partners is to do what is best for kids,” district spokeswoman Laura Conroy said in a statement. “MESD is evolving, as are all of our districts, and we are working cooperatively with them to identify ways that students can be included in their home-school proms, which is what is best for kids.

“This year, MESD will provide a prom experience for students,” she added. “Our long-term hope and goal is that all students will have an opportunity to attend prom in their home district, and there will not be a need to host a prom separate and apart for any group of students.”

Special prom for special reasons

Bigham says he is pleased that the Special Needs Prom is happening this year, but concerned that it may not happen in the future. In addition to being wheelchair-accessible and accommodating to students needing daytime assistants, the MESD prom was designed to be an educational experience for his and other Life Skills students. Paying an entrance fee and handing over the ticket, for example, are real-world experiences for kids to practice, he argues.

“That was part of the whole reason we did it from the beginning,” Bigham says, noting that the event was patterned off of a monthly dance for people with disabilities at the Mt. Scott Community Center.

“We were trying to copy what a real prom is,” he says. “Not paying, to us, didn’t teach the same thing.”

He noted that many transitional special education programs from Salem to Washington state that serve students ages 18-21 asked to be included, too.

“That’s part of the problem that we were finding, is it wasn’t appropriate for a 21-year-old to go back for a high school dance,” Bigham says. Some students are also unable to go to a late-night event.

“On Friday nights, if you live in a group (foster) home, no one’s going to take you,” Bigham says.

Kristin Hilfiker, who operates a group foster home, is disappointed that MESD wants kids to go to their districts’ proms.

“But it won’t happen, and that was the point of the whole (special needs) prom is that it didn’t happen,” Hilfiker says. “(Mainstream high schools) all pretend that they are interested, but they don’t do it.”

She says a notable exception was a prom she attended at Centennial High School, where people were welcoming. But Hilfiker says her kids want to attend a prom designed with their needs first, not an afterthought.

“I would say that the prom that they enjoyed the most was their own prom,” Hilfiker says.

MESD’s prom will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, May 13, at Gresham Skate World. The theme is The Sky is the Limit.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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