EDUCATION
09/21/2011 02:56 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2011

Lawrence Melrose, New Orleans 9th Grader, Allegedly Kept Out Of Oprah Winfrey Celebration Due To 'Embarrassment'

Last September, Oprah Winfrey donated $1 million to the New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy. As the principal received the check on Winfrey's show, the roughly 200 students watched the broadcast from a viewing party at home and celebrated with live music.

The only thing missing?

16-year-old student Lawrence Melrose, who sat nearby in a school office, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

According to Businessweek, school officials were concerned that the student's tendency to curse and get in fights, caused by an emotional disability, would be an "embarrassment" during the broadcast.

The New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy was one of six charter school networks to receive $1 million each from Winfrey's Angel Network charity -- schools in areas ranging from Chicago to California.

The Winfrey celebration wasn't the only incident where Melrose felt he was denied access to school programs and curricula, his family alleges. His lawyer told the Business exchange that the 9th grader was "repeatedly suspended and told he couldn't take the school bus with other kids."

Despite efforts like the Denver school district's $100,000 investment in a charter-based disability center last year, occurrences of disabled children being excluded and denied care at charter schools is still common, especially as the country embarks on a large movement toward expanding them.

As of the 2010-2011 school year, 3.7 percent of students nationwide attend charter schools, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. In New Orleans, that figure is 69.5 percent, as charter schools sprung up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Charter schools are publicly funded -- or funded by a mix of public and private funds -- but operated independently.

As lawmakers around the country debate their state budgets, schools are faced with watching the day when $100 billion in federal stimulus money will run out comes closer and closer. Although under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all public institutions must legally provide special needs care as well as access to a general curriculum, many schools such as Melrose's are struggling with the costs.

It is estimated that educating the average disabled child costs twice as much money as a non-disabled one. For schools, this means that denying the needy children often helps the school's budget and could help the school's testing average.

Along with 10 other families, Melrose's uncle filed a federal special-education discrimination suit against the state of Louisiana last October.

Melrose's uncle and gurdian, Shelton Joseph, described Lawrence's reaction to being left out of the celebration to Businessweek.

“They left me,” Joseph recalled the boy telling him on the day of the Winfrey celebration. “They left me out."

This comes at a time when states like South Carolina are seeing more lenient policies for cutting special education funding to schools, and as Massachusetts agencies are facing major audits and sweeping reform proposals in the midst of millions of misspent special education dollars.