FORT THOMAS, Ky. — Highlands High School senior Luke Laskey, a 19-year-old living with autism, has been wanting to graduate for some time.
The bubbly, bright student-manager for the Highlands tennis team said he is looking forward to finding a fulfilling career out of high school.
“Kind of excited to start a new chapter, too,” he said.
Luke hopes to graduate with the Highlands senior class in May and continue as a fifth-year student with Project SEARCH, a program that trains people with developmental disabilities to enter the workforce.
But for a year and a half, the Fort Thomas Independent School District has denied Luke access to the program that would help him with his condition and find work. Now, a Kentucky Department of Education ruling has found the district did not properly educate Laskey.
It began in 2016, when the Laskey family first met with the Admissions and Release Committee to come up with a game plan for Luke, which included Project Search.
“The plan all along from 8th, 9th, 10th grade was that he’d socially graduate and get a fifth year for Project Search,” Luke’s father Paul Laskey said.
Paul said Project Search at Northern Kentucky University would be an opportunity for Luke to transition from school to the workforce.
“It helps with making eye contact, shaking hands, putting a resume together. Getting feedback. Getting coaching,” he said.
But late in 2018, the plan changed. The issue — Paul believes allowing Luke to enroll in Project Search would hurt the school’s 99% four-year graduation rate and would set a precedent for students with autism.
Last year, the Laskeys filed for mediation, a case they ultimately won. The state said the district denied Luke Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and ordered the Admissions and Release Committee to revise Laskey’s plan to include Project Search and allow him to graduate while withholding the diploma.
But the case isn’t closed.
“The school appealed and said we don’t have to abide by that order. ‘We view that as a recommendation. And we’re not going to do that. We’re going to run out the clock. He’ll probably have to just graduate. And we’re going to kick him out of the system,’” Paul said.
Now, $40,000 in attorney’s fees later, the Laskey family said they are not deterred in fighting against this “injustice.”
“Our taxpayers of Fort Thomas that are well over 100 thousand have denied civil rights to a special needs kid, who’s a special, great kid who’s going to contribute to our society,” Paul said.
Because it is still in appeals, Fort Thomas Independent School District officials said they are unable to comment on Luke's case. The tentative date for the next Admissions and Release Committee meeting is April 27, one month before Luke plans to graduate.
“If we’re forced to have him graduate, we’re not giving up,” Paul said. “We’ll keep going. We’ll keep going because it’s the right thing to do for Luke, and we feel some responsibility for the ‘Lukes’ who come after.”