Claudia DeFabio says her sister Glenda is "a bubble of positivity," so it pained her to imagine how crushed Glenda felt when she learned that her picture was not included in her high school yearbook this year.
Glenda, 20, who has Down syndrome, is part of a program at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey, that allows special needs students to continue their education until they are 21.
Claudia, 24, who lives in London, wrote an emotional Facebook post about the situation on Thursday that went viral and resulted in the school apologizing and telling the family that it will be issuing a supplemental yearbook with photos of all of the students.
"We just want to advocate for Glenda and make her feel that she's a student," DeFabio told TODAY. "We see her as our sister and not our sister with Down syndrome, and hope all people see it that way as well."
DeFabio wrote on Facebook that the faculty and staff who teach Glenda were acknowledged in the yearbook, so there was "no excuse" for Glenda and her fellow special needs students being omitted. She also included Glenda's yearbook photo for all to see.
"Imagine the heartbreak my mother felt having to explain to my sister why she wasn’t in the yearbook," DeFabio wrote. "And Glenda not being able to understand how she was seen as different than her general education classmates."
DeFabio noted that her mother, Jill DeFabio, signed a media release for the school to share Glenda's student photos, so there was nothing from the family's end preventing it from being used.
"Glenda is very active in the school and community, so from her perspective, it was really hard for her to understand why she wasn't included," DeFabio said.
Watchung Hills Regional superintendent Elizabeth Jewett said in a statement to TODAY that the district learned on Thursday that "one or more of our students" was left out of the yearbook and then worked to rectify the situation.
"This is troubling and, certainly, was not intentional," Jewett said in the statement. "The District would never exclude any student from any aspect of Watchung Hills due to a disability, race/ethnicity, or for any other reason. As a District, we actively seek to foster a culture that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion.
"We deeply regret that the student mentioned in the post was not pictured in our yearbook, and we apologize to her and her family for this omission. We are investigating what occurred and are currently looking to see if any other unintentional omissions were made."
Jewett added that its yearbook process will also be reviewed to "avoid any erroneous omissions in the future."
DeFabio said it mainly came down to an issue of communication between the school and the family.
She said the family learned from a source in the school on Thursday that if special needs students do not specifically identify with a grade from 9-12, they're not automatically put in the yearbook. For example, if Glenda's family had informed the school she wanted to be considered an 11th-grader, DeFabio said her picture would've appeared with the photos of all the juniors.
Jewett said that student privacy laws prevent the school from publicly identifying students as receiving special education services, in the yearbook or elsewhere.
"This is why we have not included a section with portraits of our transition program students up to this point," she said in the statement. "However, we are revisiting this and are considering doing so in the future for parents of students who would like this option and will grant permission for us to do so."
"It wasn't malicious, it was just a lot of things that had led up to that point," DeFabio said. "There just could've been better communication."
Jill DeFabio spoke with the school's principal on Friday, who also apologized, according to her daughter.
"I do feel that after everything that happened there has been positive and immediate change, and it's good to see the school is being responsive as well," Claudia DeFabio said.
Glenda is the youngest of the family's five siblings and the closest in age to Claudia, who has always looked out for her.
"I've always felt like I've been her champion through everything and feel really lucky to share her story," DeFabio said.
She described Glenda's personality as "larger than life." Since her Facebook post, DeFabio has gotten messages from people in town who always see Glenda smiling when she's working at Walgreen's as part of her work-study program, and from a student who said Glenda always held the door for her when entering the school before the pandemic.
"With those little acts of kindness, it's just great to see how she's touched so many people's lives," DeFabio said.