Thirteen-year-old Henry Frost, who lists Martin Luther King, Jr., as one of his idols, believes he should not be segregated from the rest of the kids in his neighborhood. Just because he has a medically complex history and has been diagnosed with autism does not mean, to him, that he should have to leave his community and go to a school that specializes in disabilities.
“I belong at Wilson Middle School,” Frost writes of his great wish to attend the school across the street from his house with his neighborhood friends. “I am a person.”
The Florida school district where Frost lives, however, has said that the boy belongs in a specialized program at a different school. So far, the Hillsborough County school district has refused to allow Frost to enroll at Wilson because he has special needs, which include hearing difficulties and having to write instead of speak (he is nonverbal and uses an iPad to communicate).
Up until last year, Frost attended a charter school that focused on children with special needs; a school his own family helped launch and was very involved in. According to his mother, Lauri Hunt, her son started becoming withdrawn and depressed there in 2009. He had a horrible year between two surgeries, a hearing system that didn’t work well in the classroom, and the tragic death of his father, but she felt there was something else going on that was making him not want to go to school. “He started hiding his school uniform at night.”
In an attempt to raise public awareness of some of the myths about autism and intelligence, Hunt arranged for a screening of the film Wretches & Jabberers, which follows two autistic men who travel internationally to encourage people to think differently about the syndrome. The stars of the film, Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette, made the trip to Florida and met with Frost. This was a life-changing experience for Henry. “The big change was meeting my friends Tracy [and] Larry,” Frost writes. “Tracy and Larry are my mentors. They are my heroes. I did not know about advocacy and inclusion before I met them.”
Hunt says she was amazed by her son’s immediate connection with the pair. “They treated him like the amazing smart kid he is,” she says. “It changed everything for him. To meet autistic adults who were advocating for change—it was really incredible. Since then there has been no turning back.”
The message Thresher and Bissonnette have shared with Frost is that people who have autism deserve to be part of the community just like everyone else. From this, Frost came to the thrilling conclusion that he wanted to attend the same school his neighborhood friends do. “It is across the street and I can walk there,” he writes. When asked what he is missing from the general education experience, he responds simply: “Everything.”
Hunt, who has been homeschooling Frost this fall (using a neighborhood boy’s worksheets so Frost is up-to-date if the enrollment comes through), says the Hillsborough school district recommended he enroll in another public school outside of their neighborhood, one that has a special needs classroom. She says when they toured the class where Frost would be educated, he quickly realized that the special needs class would not give him the type of general education he strongly desires. She says they asked the administrators if the students in this class would read books like To Kill a Mockingbird, a book Frost was reading at home at the time. They were told, Hunt says, that they would not; that in this class they would instead participate in activities like listening to books on tape, working on characters, going on outings and learning cooking skills. This did not appeal to the 13-year-old who loves to read and who is eager to work on his 6th grade academic skills.
Frost ultimately refused to go to this school where he would be segregated from the rest of the general education students. And he has decided to fight for what he believes is his right—everyone’s right—to inclusion in a public school. In August, he made a film to protest the school district’s refusal to allow him to attend Wilson. He went to downtown Tampa to “march” for his rights at the Republican National Convention. He held signs that evoked the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and stated that he is a part of the 20 percent of people with disabilities. He then posted a couple of photos on an “I Stand With Henry” Facebook site—which has gone viral. More than 2,700 people have signed his petition to be enrolled at Wilson since it was launched on September 13.
I like the ‘you can do it’ better than the ‘you cannot do it.’
Frost has heard from people all over the world who support him, including actor Colin Farrell, who wrote, “I stand with all my heart behind and beside Henry, and the many other students across America and the world, who face similar resistance in their quest to experience the same opportunities as us all. Being part of one's local community is such an important part of our lives. It's something that many of us take for granted. And yet this is what Henry is fighting for. He is fighting for his civil and human right to be allowed to participate in his neighborhood schooling system.”
The Hillsborough County school district, which is not allowed to discuss individual students with the press, made it clear in a recent State Impact article by John O’Connor that they are abiding by the law which says if a school is not equipped to handle a student’s disabilities, they need to provide an alternative, which they have done. Hunt responds that she is only asking for Wilson Middle School to allow her son the opportunity to try it out for a year to see how he does. “We’ll pay for an aide,” she says, adding that all of her son’s friends in the neighborhood are cheering for him to attend their school.
Frost says he is pleased by the affect his cause has had on people. “It is great, a little surpris[ing],” he writes. “I like reading what people write. I like the ‘you can do it’ better than the ‘you cannot do it.’” He adds that he is making his battle public because he wants to make a difference for all kids with disabilities. “It is not just my fight. Things will not change if they just change for me.”