Dozens urge Ventnor school board to let child with autism stay

let joseph stay

Joseph Costello just wants to go to school with his friends, he told the Ventnor Board of Education on Wednesday night.

But the seventh-grader’s parents say the school district has decided it can no longer handle their son, who is autistic. They told Katie and Joe Costello that their son needs to go to a program in Galloway Township.

A judge’s “stay put” order is the only thing keeping Joseph in Ventnor, while “the Child Study Team remains adamant that our son will no longer attend school in Ventnor,” Katie Sutor Costello explained in a Facebook page she and her husband created to bring attention to their son’s issue.

The private page not only garnered more than 1,300 member since its Oct. 7 creation, but it sparked an outpouring of support at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

“It takes a village,” Katie Costello said after the meeting. “Tonight the village came.”

Dozens filled the room, many with signs calling for the district to “Let Joseph Stay,” the name of the Facebook page.

Those who spoke included coaches, special needs advocates and former Mayor Tim Kreischer.

Joyce Klemic came as a longtime child study team member from another district.

“If I had made a recommendation to take a child like that and send him out of the district, probably my employment would be questioned, and people would have thought I lost my mind,” she told the board. “It’s wrong for the child. It’s wrong for the school. It’s fiscally irresponsible. Let Joseph stay.”

The 12-year-old also spoke on his own behalf.

“I really want to stay in Ventnor,” he told the board. “I don’t like big changes. Starting over at a new school would be really stressful. I would have long car rides to a new school with new teachers that don’t know me and none of my friends would be there.

“I’ve made some mistakes before but I’m trying really hard and I think I’m doing really great,” he continued. “Please let me stay in Ventnor.”

A mother from Absecon whose twin boys are autistic said she was impressed with how highly functioning Joseph was in being able to state his case, and warned that the change in routine could be detrimental.

“You could be damaging everything that this school worked hard to have him accomplish just by sending him to another district,” she said. “It just takes one little trigger of a change in a routine to change their world.”

Another mom said her own son became suicidal when her home district tried to move him out years ago.

Board President Doug Biagi explained before the public comment that the board could not respond to questions or talk about any issues with students. He also attempted to limit the public comment portion, which drew criticism from many.

He did let everyone who wanted to speak.

“In seeking this out-of-district placement, you’ve confirmed every special needs mother’s worst fears,” Katie Costello said. “The world won’t be kind to your son because he’s different. They won’t have patience for him while he struggles and learns. They don’t want him.”

Joseph’s uncle, Charlie Costello, said he was a troublemaker during his time as a Ventnor student.

“I probably should have been shipped out to somewhere else,” he said. “I wasn’t. My parents didn’t give up. The school didn’t give up. No one did. They stuck with me.”

He then described Joseph as “genius. brilliant, gifted. one of the greatest kids I’ve ever met.”

Many pointed out that the seventh-grader — who has attended the district since preschool — only has a year and a half left until he would graduate.

“This is Joseph’s school, just like it was my school and his father’s school and his grandfather’s school,” Katie Costello told the board. “Joseph sings on this stage, plays sports in these gyms, learns in these classrooms with the peers from his community.”

“He belongs here as much as anybody else,” she said. “Now is the time the people in this room need to decide what kind of community we want Ventnor to be: one that is inclusive and kind that welcomes students that have differences with patience and love, or one that treats children as disposable … that wants to turn back the clock on how we treat special needs students.”

The public portion ended with the group chanting, “Let Joseph stay,” as they left the room.

The Costellos are scheduled to meet with the Child Study Team on Thursday.