Walk through the front yard of Renee and Terry Irby's Charlack home, and a cape-clad jack-o'-lantern crows out, "Happy Halloween!" The Irbys' yard, like the rest of their low-slung home off St. Charles Rock Road, is a frenzied tribute to the upcoming holiday. Plastic skulls peek out from the lawn. There are half-buried femurs, glow-in-the-dark footprints, a triple-stacked pumpkin balloon standing sentry and, of course, reams of orange-and-black window dressing.
But Halloween has been the last thing on Renee Irby's mind since she received a jarring letter from her son Christopher's Cub Scout pack.
"I didn't want to believe that my child had been discriminated against," says the 28-year-old mother of three. "The whole reason I put my kids in the Boy Scouts was to give them a sense of normalcy."
Normalcy has been in short supply for the young couple since they adopted Renee's two developmentally disabled nephews in May of last year. The seven- and nine-year-old boys only added to Irby's already hectic schedule of cleaning houses full-time and raising her three-year-old son. And Irby took on even more responsibility last year when she enrolled her middle child -- who has a low IQ -- in Wyland Elementary Cub Scout Pack 765 and became the "Tiger Cub Leader" for her boy's den.
"After about four meetings, people stopped showing up with their kids," says Irby, adding that the other scout leaders never made her feel welcome. "I felt very alienated the entire year. They kind of kept us separated from everybody."
For much of last year, Irby thought she was being paranoid. But her fears were confirmed last month when she received a letter from Cub Scout pack leaders Tim Huston and Sue Hummert barring her seven-year-old son from meetings and pack activities.
"After much consideration in regards to the Cub Scout program, the [Cub Scout Pack] Committee has concluded that Pack 765 does not offer an appropriate format for your son," states the September 24 letter, which is signed by Huston and Hummert.
"In addition, after observing Christopher's behavior at both den and pack meetings throughout the 2003-2004 school year, and, for both his safety and the other children's safety, we insist that he not attend the meetings or other pack events," the letter continues.
"I got very upset. I cannot believe that these guys are kicking me out because my kid's retarded," says Irby. "I cannot believe grownups are acting like this. This is a very bad example to set for your children."
Huston and Hummert declined to comment for this story, but Hummert did offer that she thought the letter was "not at all" discriminatory toward Renee Irby or her developmentally disabled son.
Phil Ferguson, dean of the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, begs to differ. "Come on! He's seven years old. On its face, it's outrageous, segregationist and discriminatory," Ferguson says. "It's offensive that these leaders would reach this point instead of saying, 'Let's sit down and figure out how we can work this out.' But what really irritates me is that they take that kind of almost restraining-order kind of language -- 'Keep your kid away from our normal kids.' It's bogus."
It wouldn't be the first time the Scouts have banned children its leaders found "inappropriate," says David Newburger, a St. Louis disabilities-rights attorney. In the case of Welsh v. Boy Scouts of America, the Scouts denied membership to a child who refused to pledge allegiance to God.
"In that case the court ruled that the Boy Scouts was a private club," says Newburger, adding that many private clubs are not bound by the dictates of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"I just find it appalling personally, however, that what we have is people arguing that they have a right to discriminate against people," Newburger adds. "What happened to common sense? What happened to the social niceties of people getting along with one another?"
Boy Scout representatives maintain they make every effort to accommodate special-needs children.
"There are many, many stories of accommodation and success," says Joe Mueller, spokesman for the Greater St. Louis Area Council, Boy Scouts of America. "In this case the scout presented some extreme challenges, behaviorally and socially, that required [leaders] to consider the safety of the rest of the scouts first."
But scout mothers who spent months with Irby's son contend the seven-year-old never posed any behavioral problems. "He was a little slower than my child, but he participated just as well as mine did," says scout mother Amy Aubuchon. "He wasn't dangerous, or irate, or anything like that. He sat and did the same activities as my kid. He's a great kid. I never found anything wrong with him."
Boy Scout spokesman Mueller declined to discuss Irby's son's behavior, saying only: "The pack has made a determination. We support the leadership of our packs and troops."
The letter informing Irby of the pack leadership's decision suggested that Irby either ask her son's teacher to start a Classroom Scouting program or that she start her own "special-needs" Cub Scout unit.
Impossible, says Irby. "I basically work sixteen hours a day. I have a full-time job. I'm a cleaning lady. I come home and take care of three kids, two of which are special needs. I don't feel like that's an option. I feel unwelcome to talk to them about anything."
But even if Irby were able to start her own special-needs Cub Scout pack, UMSL professor Phil Ferguson maintains that dividing children into groups based on their mental abilities "ghettoizes" special-needs children.
"That's the kind of solution we've had traditionally: When in doubt, let's create a separate thing and call it equal," Ferguson says. "We have a lot of experience with that regarding minority groups. I would approach this the same way as if they tried to set up a separate African-American troop. It's a cop-out."
The actions of Cub Scout Pack 765 leaders Huston and Hummert appear to contradict the philosophy of the Boy Scouts of America. Boy Scout literature goes to great lengths in highlighting the organization's commitment to include children with disabilities, maintaining that there are more than 100,000 registered scouts with disabilities.
"The basic premise of Scouting for youth with disabilities and special needs is that they want most to participate like other youth -- and Scouting gives them that opportunity," reads a fact sheet entitled "Scouts with Disabilities and Special Needs."
"The program for Scouts with disabilities and special needs is directed at (1) helping unit leaders develop an awareness of disabled people among youth without disabilities, and (2) encouraging the inclusion of Scouts with disabilities and special needs in Cub Scout packs."
But local scout leadership is holding firm. "If [pack leadership has] made a decision that the health and safety of their youth members is being compromised -- then we respect that decision," says Mueller, who emphasizes that the scouts have presented Irby with other options. "He could join another pack at another school."
That's cold comfort to Renee Irby, who has yet to tell her son he's no longer welcome at Pack 765 events. "You know what I feel like?" she asks. "I feel like it's all bullshit."
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