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Students honor special-needs peers at prom
Updated 5/15/2011 11:28 PM ET
LOVELAND, Ohio — Mary Alten remembers being determined, yet afraid, when she enrolled her daughter in preschool.

Toni Alten-Crowe was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes delays in physical and mental development. Alten had ignored recommendations to place Toni in a special school and moved to Loveland after hearing parents say the district tries to include students with disabilities in regular classes and activities.

Even so, she was concerned for her only child.

"I imagined that she would be snubbed and made fun of and not be given opportunities," Alten says.

STORY: Connecticut teen allowed to attend prom

Instead, something wonderful happened. Toni, now a senior at Loveland High, was crowned prom queen two weeks ago. Her friend, Drew Anderson, also a senior with Down syndrome, was crowned king by their classmates.

"What I had imagined for her turned out to be the exact opposite," Alten says.

Students in mainstream high schools are increasingly honoring their special-needs peers at school events, says Michelle Diament, co-founder of Disability Scoop, a Memphis-based website that covers news about developmental disabilities.

As examples, Diament points to the popularity of the Special Olympics and the TV show Glee's inclusion of children with disabilities.

It's an outgrowth, she says, of federal laws that since the mid-1970s have required schools to include students with disabilities.

"Kids … are more used to these students being their peers, so you get more acceptance," Diament says.

There are 6.6 million schoolchildren with disabilities nationwide; 60% of them spend most of their school day in classes with non-disabled students, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics.

Diament says she has heard of numerous other proms or homecomings that have featured students with disabilities on the royal court. This year, she says, that includes schools in Orlando; Albuquerque; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Lago Vista, Texas; and Neptune Beach, Fla.

Suzi Anderson says her son Drew's preschool class had six kids with disabilities and six without. In later grades, she doesn't remember classmates bullying him.

"This never would have happened when I was in school," Anderson says. "I think the stigma has changed."

She and Alten credit Molly Swaine, an intervention specialist at Loveland High, with creating a mentoring program that pairs special-needs teens with other seniors for daily projects and assignments. After school, a group called Partners attracts about 80 special-needs and able-bodied students to fundraisers and monthly social events, Swaine says.

Toni and Drew are both involved in Special Olympics. Drew is a student manager on the boys' volleyball team. And every Monday for the past four years, Toni has started the morning announcements with "Good morning, Loveland High."

On prom night, when the royal winners were announced, the cheers, claps and smiles were universal and genuine.

"No one was upset; everyone was excited about the result," senior Lauren Tipton says. "Usually people are catty if they don't win. Usually they just vote for their friends. Drew and Toni are friends with everybody."

Posted 5/15/2011 9:31 PM ET
Updated 5/15/2011 11:28 PM ET
Loveland High students Drew Anderson, 18, and Toni Alten-Crowe, 20, were elected prom king and queen.
Loveland High students Drew Anderson, 18, and Toni Alten-Crowe, 20, were elected prom king and queen.