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Billings West High students walk out of school in solidarity with Emily Pennington

Students walk out in protest of district's "age out" policy
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Posted at 5:13 PM, Apr 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-05 19:13:43-04

The community has rallied behind the family of a Billings West student with special needs seeking to graduate, and Tuesday was no exception. Students at Billings West High School walked out during second period in protest of School District 2’s age-out policy.

The walk-out happened just in time for a Tuesday night special board meeting, one where board members are expected to decide whether Pennington will be able to graduate with her class.

Nearly 250 students walked out of school at 9:15 a.m., chanting “let her stay,” in support of their fellow classmate.

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Pennington will turn 19 this summer but won’t be able to graduate with her class next year because of the district's policy 2050, which prevents students who turn 19 before Sept. 10 from graduating.

“She won’t be able to graduate from her senior year and if you don’t graduate you can’t go to college and get a good job, so I just think it’s really important that she should graduate,” said West High student Annie Snelling.

Montana lawmakers amended the law last year to allow school districts to extend high school education for special needs students but gave individual districts the ability to opt out.

Billings is one district that has chosen to opt out. Superintendent Greg Upham has argued that the state hasn’t allocated enough money for the dozens of students who would qualify, leaving Emily in limbo.

“She’s one of the very few kids that I see around the school like actually wanting to finish it out,” said West High student Katie Hullman.

Another West High student, Zach Nelson, has ADHD. He says support like this gives him hope not just for Emily, but for all students with disabilities.

“Quite of few parents of people who are also on the spectrum are very happy,” Nelson said.

It was quite the sight for both Emily and her mother, Jana Pennington.

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“It actually feels really good. I’m just glad my friends are out here supporting me so I can hopefully go back to school,” Emily said.

Seeing all of the community support evokes strong emotions for Jana.

“We are so grateful for this Billings community and I just can’t say enough without getting teary,” Jana said.

They’re hoping for even more support at the meeting, as well as a change in policy that will allow Emily to graduate with her class next year.

“I’m feeling good, hopefully, I can get used to this board thing but I’m really excited about it,” said Emily.

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