Teen With Autism Disqualified From Trip
PORTLAND, Ore. — A 15-year-old boy who won a contest sponsored by a national fraternal organization recently learned that officials withdrew the prize, apparently because he has autism.
Niko Boskovic had to beat out other Portland contestants to be one of five finalists interviewed and judged by members of North Portland’s Peninsula Odd Fellows Lodge. Niko wrote an essay on the history of Ukraine and submitted letters of recommendation from his teachers.
Niko was the clear winner, said David Scheer, lodge secretary. He said lodge members raised money to cover all costs Niko and a second winner needed to make the trip.
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The contest winners, 300 kids from across the world, will gather in New York City to participate in the annual United Nations Pilgrimage for Youth for 10 days. As a winner, Niko received an email from Charles Cloud, the Odd Fellows jurisdictional chairman for Oregon. The email asked all delegates to email him their essays, application form and delegate registration form.
A week later, Niko’s mother, Loreta, wrote to Cloud: “My son Niko Boskovic was selected as a recipient of the UN pilgrimage. As you may be aware, he is on the autism spectrum, and I will be traveling with him to support his communication on a letter board.”
She said while getting her son’s application packet complete, she noticed Niko’s passport was about to expire. She told Cloud she had an appointment to submit that paperwork.
When she didn’t get a reply, she emailed Cloud a second time: “If you wouldn’t mind confirming receipt of this email, it would be greatly appreciated.”
After getting no response, she called Cloud.
“He told me that it wasn’t a done deal that Niko was going to be able to attend,” she said. “The U.N. program’s board of directors was reviewing his application, and would make a decision.
“This was surprising, to say the least, because there were no details outlined about further eligibility criteria,” she said. “Nothing about disability, nothing about case-by-case determinations in the information we received or on the program’s website.”
In early March, Cloud emailed Boskovic: “Loreta, I have received the UNEPY, Inc. Board’s decision concerning Niko. I am attaching what I have below.”
Janet Bruce, the group’s executive director wrote: “The Board of Directors has instructed me to tell you this delegate will not be accepted for the tour.”
The email added chaperones were not allowed on the tour and referred questions to Charles Renninger, a past sovereign grand master, a national position in the Odd Fellows organization, and chairman of the United Nations pilgrimage program.
Cloud added his response to the email: “I regret the decision and I am very sorry. This was a surprise to me.”
“However, yesterday I attended a meeting with the Grand Master, Grand Secretary, Grand Parliamentarian, and others who have sent a letter to the Board for a written explanation and to challenge the ruling. I do not know when they will receive the Board’s response; considering the time, it should be quick.”
Scheer, with the North Portland lodge, said his group was “totally blindsided.”
“We called national for an explanation,” he said. “We were told they don’t have the staff and knowledge to be accountable for someone with a disability.”
So Niko, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, will be stuck in Portland this summer.
Word of the decision spread to Odd Fellow lodges across the state.
“All of us banded together to challenge the decision,” Scheer said.
They sent a letter to Renninger requesting an explanation.
“This letter is a follow up to our telephone conversation on Thursday, March 9, 2017 with PSGM Charles Renninger concerning how the Board’s decision relates to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Divisions, Disability Rights Section, ADA Effective Communication. We look forward to your response.”
“We got nowhere,” Scheer said. “They refunded our money, and they’ve refused to talk with us.”
Bruce and Renninger also did not respond to calls and emails from a reporter.
Scheer called the decision “ridiculous.”
“For 20 years, I worked with the Portland Park Bureau’s adaptive recreation program,” he said. “I’ve taken disabled kids on so many field trips and recreational outings. They were never a problem.”
As a baby, Niko met all his developmental milestones, but lost his ability, at 3, to use language because of a severe case of autism.
His parents fought for and won a spot for Niko in a general education kindergarten. But, they recall, a teacher told his parents she didn’t want their son in class because she didn’t have the energy to deal with the disruptions. At the end of the school year, his parents, who also have a younger daughter, decided to teach Niko at home, paying to have a behavioral specialist guide them. The family lives near the University of Portland, and they found students majoring in psychology could receive class credit for working with Niko.
Several years ago, his mother learned about Rapid Prompting Method, and Niko worked with a therapist to master the letter board. The device looks like a placemat with the letters of the alphabet spread across five rows and simple punctuation off to one side. By using the letter board, Niko could interact with the world.
Using it, he told his mother he wanted to attend a public school, specifically, Trillium Charter School, less than a mile from the Boskovic home. But to gain admittance Niko first had to get permission from the school district, which sent two evaluators to watch him and his mother using the letter board. The evaluators noted that Niko seemed talented and gifted. They recommended he be admitted to Trillium.
“He’s fully integrated in the school,” his mother said. “His freshman year, he focused almost exclusively on academics. More than 25 kids in the school know how to use his letter board, so this year he is much more social and building strong relationships with kids.”
Late last year, school officials told students about the Odd Fellows contest.
“Niko told my husband and I that everyone was encouraged to apply,” Boskovic said.
After the national organization rescinded the offer, Boskovic said, she called Renninger. If they believed they needed extra help with Niko, she said, she was willing to come on the trip to be with him, ready to pay $1,600 out of her pocket.
“He told me he was fully aware of who I was,” Boskovic said. “He told me he was under instructions not to talk with me. We haven’t received anything in writing explaining why Niko isn’t allowed to go on the trip. The local lodge has been a huge support.”
She said she and her husband have contacted Disability Rights Oregon, an advocacy group, believing Niko’s exclusion might be a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I was shocked when she brought this to us,” said Gordon C. Magella, an attorney with the group. “I have never seen something so blatant with no explanation. I have worked on some cases where there’s a plausible excuse, or a practical reason. But not here.”
Magella said it’s particularly upsetting given the trip’s purpose.
The program, started in 1949 by the Sovereign Grand Lodge Independent Order of Odd Fellows, is billed as “an opportunity of a lifetime to observe the United Nations in person while exchanging views on education, politics and religion.”
“They bring youth from all over the world to gather and share,” Magella said. “What they’re essentially saying is they don’t want input from Niko.”
He said Niko’s reliance on the letter board is no different than a person who is deaf relying on a sign language interpreter on a tour, or a person who is blind needing a seeing eye dog.
Magella said the local lodge and the Boskovic family have been unable to get any explanation why Niko has been excluded.
“Nothing,” he said. “We will see what happens when they get something from me with my letterhead that says attorney. We will demand accommodation or an explanation.”
Even so, Scheer said Niko’s chances of going on this trip are likely over given the timing.
“But he’s only a sophomore,” Scheer said. “Sophomores and juniors are eligible. Hopefully, we can get them straightened out next year. The reaction of the Oregon lodges has been in Niko’s favor. Our lodge voted to not take part in this program again until they put in a guarantee that there won’t be discrimination based on a disability.”
© 2017 The Oregonian
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