Holmdel grad in wheelchair not brought on stage — It’s ‘injustice,’ mom says
HOLMDEL — Superintendent Dr. Robert McGarry said he was unaware that Lili Portmann wanted to go on stage at the Holmdel High School commencement during her commencement at Brookdale Community College.
The senior's sister, Blake Portmann, and her mother Tracy Welch announced via their Facebook pages that Lili — who has spinal muscular atrophy type 3 and uses a motorized wheelchair — was not allowed to ride onto the stage to accept her diploma and did not get a handshake from the superintendent.
"Unfortunately, it was not brought to my attention that Lili and/or her family had made a specific request regarding how she wished to receive her diploma. It was not until Lili's mother emailed the board and me following graduation that I was aware of any situation," McGarry told New Jersey 101.5 in an email.
"As to why I did not shake Lili's hand, it was because she was collecting her diploma on the side of the stage where the board president (Vicky Flynn) presents the diplomas," McGarry said.
Welch said she believes that it is the superintendent's job to be aware of all the students — and thought perhaps McGarry would have noticed his daughter during the Senior Walk.
"You are the superintendent of an extremely wealthy district. Is it not your job, are you not there to acknowledge every student and congratulate them on their accomplishments? Let's just say she couldn't go up the ramp. It was absolutely impossible for her to come to that ramp. Would't you recognize that?" Welch said.
Welch said that what she called an "injustice" could have been righted at the end of the commencement ceremony.
"They could have said at the end 'oh my gosh, we rushed through this program, I'm so sorry. By oversight I missed shaking this young lady's hand and congratulating her,'" Welch said.
Welch said that she notified Holmdel High School principal William Loughran on January 3 about Lili, who she said is the only student who uses a wheelchair.
There was a two-hour practice in the Holmdel High School gym the day before commencement where Lili was able to go across the stage in her wheelchair, according to Welch.
"I looked at her and said to her 'is everything ready' because maybe there'll be some confusion. ... You're going to go up the ramp, you're going to get your diploma and you're going to come back down. And she was like 'got it, ready to go,'" her mother said.
During her graduation from Holmdel Middle School four years ago, which was also held at Brookdale, Lili was able to walk across the stage suing braces and sticks, according to Welch.
"Because she was wearing a cap and gown, I suggested, 'You should ride in your wheelchair, ride up and ride back down, because you don't want to trip and fall,'" Welch said.
Welch said she is not looking for a "do over" on the commencement ceremony.
"What our point is in bringing this to light is that we need to make sure that this never happens again to any student," Welch said.
"I continue to regret what happened. The board president and I wish there was some way to redress what happened on graduation day. We only wish her the best in her future and our deepest apologies," McGarry said.