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Boynton police take John I. Leonard special-needs students to prom

Faced with expensive prom tickets and no dates, a group of students in a special-needs program at John I. Leonard High decided to skip prom this year. But a group of police officers from Boynton Beach quickly changed their minds.

The off-duty officers dressed in their uniforms and took the students to prom Saturday at the Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.

And they were the perfect dates.

They brought corsages and boutonnières. They took prom pictures. They danced. Oh, did they dance.

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When the group walked in to the room at the Kravis Center they headed straight to the dance floor and showed off their best moves to Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘N’ Nite.” Officer Candice KickingStallionSims did the stanky leg hip-hop dance to Silentó’s “Watch Me.” Student Johan Capele took the lead on the dance floor as a crowd formed a circle around him, cheering him on.

Capele’s mom, Yolanda Gonzalez, thought the police officers were simply coming up with the money for the prom tickets. Then she saw videos of them dancing with her son, 20, who has Down syndrome. 

“That’s beautiful that the police did that,” Gonzalez said. 

She’s already sent videos and pictures to family and friends in Puerto Rico.

“The kids didn’t stop dancing and we didn’t stop dancing. We had a blast,” said Stephanie Slater, the police department’s spokeswoman.

Since prom night, photos and videos that Slater posted on the department’s social media have gone viral and landed spots on CNN and in the U.K.

Lisa Neu and her daughter Kinzer Neu-Kellar, 18, watched it on the news that night. 

“She’s like, ‘I’m a celebrity! That’s the paparazzi, mom!’ They had a ball and that was so cool for the police to step up and escort them,” Neu said. 

Neu, whose daughter has Landau-Kleffner syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy, said she was glad all the students were able to go together. 

“If these kids are gonna go to prom and get the experience we gotta get them to go as a group, so everybody stepped up and made that happen,” she said.

The idea to go to prom came from husband and wife Scott and Sandi Harris. Sandi is a teacher at John I. Leonard and Scott is a retired Boynton police officer who still works at the department as an asset forfeiture specialist.

“We were talking one night about the prom and that they couldn’t go because they didn’t have dates and it would be uncomfortable for them to go with their parents. So we thought ‘what about officers being their dates?’” Scott Harris said.

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About 30 officers volunteered to go, Harris said. But they didn’t need that many. So they chose officers Rachel Baldino, Denise Schrecengost, KickingStallionSims and Matthew Vazquez, Investigator Alfredo Vargas, Det. Marco Villari, Officer-in-charge Christine Naulty and sergeants Rayner De Los Rios and CaryAnn Matson. Slater and Harris also attended.

The police didn’t want the students or their parents to have to pay for prom tickets so they asked around. Boynton-based Beck’s Towing and Recovery paid $500 for the students’ six tickets, Slater said.

The officers met the students at John I. Leonard and then traveled to prom in the police’s black unmarked van.

“As much as it meant to those students, it meant that much more to us, for us to be able to do this for them. Just to see the smiles on their faces. That was pure joy expressed on their faces,” Slater said. “It was just an incredible experience and I think it’s something we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives.”

The students are in the Exceptional Student Education program at the Greenacres school. Students in that program range in age from 15 to 21 and are taught academics and life skills, Harris said.

But that night at prom, there were no differences.

“The students that we brought interacted with the regular ed. students as if they were all one in the same,” Harris said.

Slater added: “There were no barriers between us. There was nothing about their disability that held them back. We got out on that dance floor and we were the same.”

Harris said the student he went to prom with, Lissa Erreira, typically has an introverted personality. She’s deaf and doesn’t see well. At prom, “she was out dancing with me on the dance floor with a smile from ear to ear,” Harris said.

The retired officer hopes that next year John I. Leonard will want to have the officers at prom again, and hopes other schools like Boynton Beach Community High will do the same.

“It was a really great night,” he said.

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