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Billings school board member hoping for solution for West student with Down syndrome

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Posted at 10:36 AM, Mar 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-31 12:36:57-04

BILLINGS — One Billings school board member said Wednesday that he hopes a 19-year-old Billings special-needs student will be able to graduate, but the full board isn't ready to vote on the matter.

Trustee Russ Hall told Q2 News that he’ll be among the board members advocating for Emily Pennington during a Thursday special board meeting.

“I think Emily should be able to stay with her classmates as long as is possible. I would love for Emily to do that and I hope we’re able to do that as a board, but I don’t want to form a solid opinion until I have all the facts and data,” said Hall.

Emily Pennington is an 18-year-old student at Billings West High with Down syndrome. According to the Billings School District 2’s age out policy, she is currently ineligible to graduate next year with her class because she's too old. The special board meeting is being held at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Lincoln Center to discuss solutions to the situation. The district is also streaming the meeting live on its Facebook page.

Related: Billings West High special needs student unable to graduate due to 'age out' policy

“We don’t have all the facts, that’s why we called this special board meeting,” Hall said.

One week ago, very few people knew who Pennington was. She’s quickly becoming a household name in Montana. Signs of support for the student are popping up all around Billings.

“It’s worth the effort and the fight to do it,” said her mother, Jana Pennington, earlier this week.

Jana Pennington doesn’t know what the future will hold for her daughter and like many, is waiting to hear from the Billings School Board.

The Montana Legislature passed a bill last year to offer funding to school districts for special needs students up to age 21, but Billings Superintendent Greg Upham says the law allows for local districts to stick to their own policies. The Billings policy says 19-year-olds don’t have to be enrolled.

“At my request, we have no agenda item as far as we have no action that is to be taken. The only agenda item is for information only,” Hall said.

Hall says the purpose of Thursday’s meeting is just for members to research and discuss both the district's policy and the state law.

“Then we can come back to another board meeting in the near future and then we can hopefully make a decision at that point,” said Hall.

This issue is personal for Hall as he has loved ones who have gone through special education.

“I want all of them to have the same opportunities as everyone else,” Hall said.

He wishes the situation would have been handled differently, such as the communication among the Penningtons, Upham and the board.

“I have full confidence that we as a board are going to look at this on Thursday and possibly in future meetings and will come to the right solution that is best for the school district, best for Emily, and best for the community,” Hall said.