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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Bridges4Kids LogoAcceptance Reigns Along With a King
Autistic student wins hearts--and prized homecoming crown--at Culver City High.
by Cara Mia DiMassa and Zeke Minaya, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2004
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David Mason crossed his fingers and squeezed his eyes shut as he listened to the announcement that confirmed his dream: This Culver City High School senior, an autistic youth enrolled in the campus' special education program, was named homecoming king after a landslide vote.

Fireworks exploded as last year's king plopped a fake gold crown on David's head. And the crowd in the bleachers cheered wildly.

For the 2,096 students and teachers of Culver City High, Mason's reign as homecoming king tells of a remarkable bonding that has taken place at their school between a small group of special education students and the rest of the student body.

"Even though this school may seem like it's, you know, all about football and all that, we have more respect than you think," said 10th-grader Paul Corker. "The homecoming king contest here is not a popularity contest. We don't just give it to football stars. We give it to people who deserve it."

Autism is a neurological condition with symptoms that can limit a person's ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the environment. It affects each individual differently and to varying degrees.

One in every 166 U.S. children suffers from an autism spectrum disorder, according to an estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children with autism typically have trouble speaking, playing with others and following instructions.

David, 17, has some problems expressing himself and forming social relationships, said teacher Doreen Donahue.

"But he has overcome all of those things in such an amazing way," Donahue said. "He has captured the hearts and imaginations of all the kids at the school."

His special education program has focused on teaching him how to interact with others, including taking some classes with mainstream students.

"David is extremely popular, extremely well liked," said the school's principal, Franca Dell'Olio. "Of course the kids are going to elevate him to the king status, because he is just like them…. These students have moved beyond tolerance to acceptance."

David, who is in a class designed for students with moderate to severe disabilities, was nominated to the court by one of his classmates. He had competition; contenders included a football player and a youth involved in student government.

But classmates helped him color posters and hang them around campus. His sister, Tamae, a junior, appeared on a video telling other students why they should vote for her brother and "appreciate him as much as we do."

Some students in the mainstream program say they knew David before the campaign as a 6-foot, 4-inch gentle giant who loves sports. Others met him during his campaign. "He is obviously someone special," said senior Anna Brito, a David supporter. "He's just a really nice guy."

David's mother, Sherrie Johnson, said she wasn't surprised when her son made the final cut last week, assuring him a spot on the court. She was in the stands Friday night for the announcement, fighting back tears.

Wearing a black tuxedo with a gold tie, David led his fellow sovereigns in renditions of "My Girl" and "What's Going On" before they rode onto the field in a limousine. He soaked up the loud cheer that welcomed him when he stepped out of the limo and then strutted down a red carpet toward a small stage along the 50-yard line.

When he heard his name, David's face un-scrunched, his fingers unlocked. His eyes opened wide, and he mouthed the words "Oh my God" over and over.

Tamae Mason said that her eyes started watering the moment she heard her brother's name. It took her a while to gain her voice, she said; "I was trying to say 'Yay, David!' but it was coming out air for the first minutes," she said.

"He was so excited," said homecoming queen Vanessa Rodriguez. "He kept saying, 'My dream came true, my dream came true.' "

Once he was surrounded by family and well-wishers, David crowed a bit. "I am the king!" he cried out. Then, overcome by the emotion, he cried.

"He wouldn't take the crown off," said his mother Saturday. "It was so awesome. David is still riding high."


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