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For Students with Disabilities, Prom Is Highlight

The third annual prom for students with special needs was held Tuesday at the Hyatt at Reston Town Center.

Kirsten Greene, a student at Herndon High School, had been counting down the days until last Tuesday, the day of her prom Ñ one of the few times all year she can get dressed up, dance, eat cake and simply be herself among her friends and classmates.

"A long time. I've been looking forward to this a long time." she said, dressed in a formal gown, while taking a break from the dance floor at the Hyatt at Reston Town Center.

Greene, like many students with disabilities in Fairfax County, could have attended her school's regular prom, but would have felt uncomfortable and out of place amidst the hundreds of students without a debilitating disease, said her mother, Connie Greene.

Tuesday afternoon, along with roughly 80 other disabled students from Westfield, Herndon, South Lakes and Chantilly high school, Greene instead attended a prom for students with special needs.

"It makes them feel special," Connie Greene said. "It really makes their day. It's something they're always going to remember."

The prom for students with disabilities was started three years ago by Chris Pascarella, chair of the special education department at Herndon High School. The idea of having a separate prom, she said, is to give students with more severe disabilities a comfortable and inclusive experience.

"We want to help these kids have the feeling of a formal dance," she said. "They get so excited wearing tuxedos and riding in limos."

STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES are far from the only group that attends the special needs prom. General education students from the various high schools danced with the special education students, alongside parents and teachers. Members of a student photography club milled about snapping photos of couples and dancers.

"It's great just seeing the joy on their faces when you ask them to dance," said Lena McAfee, who graduated from South Lakes High School last year, but wanted to help at the special needs prom now that she is home from college for the summer. "This gives them a way to enjoy the prom with no one criticizing them or making fun of them."

The special needs prom marks one of the few occasions they will have the chance to experience conga lines, formal wear and other trappings of prom.

"Most of these kids don't have a girlfriend or boyfriend. Some are on medication. Some are in wheelchairs," said Gina Latcheran, whose son Eric Latcheran has Down's syndrome and attends Chantilly High School. "Life's just too short for a lot of these guys."

Tuesday morning, when a limo contributed by Reston Limo arrived to pick up Eric Latcheran, he was initially hesitant Ñ uncomfortable in his donated tuxedo. He told his mother he just wanted to go school, he didn't want to do go anywhere different.

But upon arriving in the Reston Hyatt ballroom, Eric Latcheran decided there was no place he'd rather be.

"I like it because it's fun," he said.

TOMMY PIZZANO, a special education student who attends South Lakes High School, had been talking about the special needs prom for weeks, said his aunt, Lisa Paul.

"It's all he talked about," she said. "He kept asking us, 'Is it Tuesday yet? Is it Tuesday yet?'"

Pizzano tried on his tuxedo almost everyday, prompting fears among his parents and aunt that he was going to lose his shoes or bow tie.

"This means a lot to me," she said. "To be able to see my nephew do what normal teenagers do is really touching. They're all so happy."

Tuesday's prom was the highlight of the year for Stephen Anderson, a student at Westfield High School who suffers from William's Syndrome, a rare condition marked by mild to moderate mental retardation and heart and blood vessel problems.

"I like the food and the dancing," he said, wearing a tuxedo and a broad grin across his face. "It all looks nice."

Debbie Anderson, his mother, said she loves to see her son so happy, especially while he is gaining invaluable social interaction experience.

"He looks forward to this all year," she said. "It's a wonderful event for him to socialize, not only with his friends in the program, but also general education students. It's an opportunity for him to learn appropriate social skills."