For weeks, Amber Bailey, a special needs student at Blue Peak High School in Tooele, Utah, had looked forward to the year-end ritual of getting her new yearbook and searching for her picture among the school’s nearly 100 students.
“She’s had a yearbook every year that she’s been in school, going back to kindergarten,” says her mother, Leslee Bailey, 58, of Grantsville, Utah.
“It’s one of her favorite days all year,” she says. “Sometimes, she’ll even go through and color everybody’s picture on the pages.”
But this year for Amber was different.
When the 21-year-old, who has Down syndrome, came home from her life skills classes at Blue Peak’s Community Learning Center on May 14 and Leslee asked to see her yearbook photo, Amber replied, “I’m not in it.”
“She was so sad that I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t because I was so angry,” Leslee Bailey tells PEOPLE. “Why weren’t she and any of the other 16 special-needs students included?”
Bailey, a single mom who works as a job placement specialist and also has two grown sons, called Amber’s school and was told there weren’t enough pages to include the 18-to-22-year-old special needs students.
Now, after being deluged with hundreds of angry calls and e-mails, the school principal tells PEOPLE he’s going to add a special insert to the yearbook with photos of the excluded students.
“We had decided that since these kids are supposed to be transitioning out of high school and moving into jobs and other programs, that maybe they didn’t need to be involved in high school activities like a yearbook,” he says. “Obviously, we were wrong.”
“We’ve been told we’re going to burn in hell, among other things,” he tells PEOPLE, “but the truth is, we want the students to be happy. I feel terrible about the whole situation. The last thing we wanted to do was to make anybody feel left out.”
Amber Bailey is the only special-needs student who bought a yearbook, he says, “but that doesn’t matter. We love all of these kids. Even one person feeling excluded is one too many.”
Leslee Bailey is pleased with the resolution, but wonders why her daughter was left out to begin with.
“She eats lunch with the other kids, she walks the halls with them and takes the bus with them,” she says.
“They’re a huge part of her life,” she says. “Not seeing her picture or the other special-needs kids’ pictures there was almost like, ‘Let’s tuck them away. They don’t exist.’ ”
Amber, she says, is no longer upset by the school’s actions and will be delighted to add her photo to her yearbook and color the page when the insert is delivered sometime next week.
“My daughter loves to dance, loves drive-in movies and loves swimming, but most of all, she loves school,” says Bailey.
“Being in the yearbook might seem like a small thing to some, but not to Amber,” she says. “She wakes up every day, excited for another day of hanging out with her friends.
“More than anything, seeing her photo in the yearbook makes her feel like she belongs.”