I'd like to tell you a story about a woman named Eliza Schaaf. I wish that it were a fictional story, but it's not. It's a story that makes me incredibly ashamed of my alma matter, Southern Oregon University.
The heart of the story goes like this: Eliza Schaaf is a 20 year old woman with Down Syndrome. Eliza graduated from Ashland High School (the high school in the town that SOU is located in) with a modified diploma last June. During her time at AHS, Eliza participated in standard classes (not special education classes) with an assistant. Eliza is well-known in the small community as an exceptional student, and was even the keynote speaker at a Down Syndrome event locally.
One of Eliza's desires was to attend college. She enrolled as a non-admitted student in one class this fast fall, Intro to Ceramics--something I believe Eliza was already familiar with. Eliza's parents made contact with the professor ahead of time, explained that Eliza has Down Syndrome, and that she would likely have an educational assistant. They made it clear that they did not expect the professor to alter the curriculum for Eliza, and that if it was a better fit, they were open to Eliza auditing the class instead of taking it for credit. Eliza wasn't concerned with the credit, but just wanted to be included with the general class. The family paid about $700 for Eliza to enroll.
Eliza attended the class with her mother as her personal assistant. Eventually, the decision was made that Eliza should audit the class, and her parents complied. At the end of December, with 13 classes completed and 5 to go, Eliza received a letter from SOU's administration that she was withdrawn from the class because her presence in the classroom supposedly created a disruption to other students. She was no longer welcome to attend classes, effective immediately.
Eliza was angry and hurt. She made contact with one of her classmates, who was very surprised that Eliza had been dropped. Eliza's classmate made contact with their other classmates (19 in total), and deduced that no one from the administration had spoken to anyone in the class about Eliza. Every member of the class signed a petition that Eliza had not been a disruption in class, and asked that she be reinstated to finish out her last five classes. The classmates presented their petition to the Associated Student Body, who passed a resolution in Eliza's support that she be reinstated immediately.
However, despite overwhelming community support, the involvement of State Representatives, and protests by SOU's student body, the administrators at SOU ultimately did not let Eliza finish her ceramics class. The last day of classes has come and gone, and Eliza is devastated. In a letter that she wrote, she says,
"On November 8, I got a letter from Alissa Arp the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She said I can’t be a student at SOU anymore. I was told I couldn’t go back to class. This did not sit well with me. I have projects to finish. I am still frustrated and upset. I do not know why the SOU administration won’t let me be a student. I try my best. I don’t bother anyone. I just do my work. I come to class. I have now missed 3 classes. I am not happy about that."
Those are the facts. More information can be found at www.elizaschaff.com
And now, I have to say that I am ENRAGED at this situation. SOU has always touted itself as being a place of inclusion--as being accommodating to students with disabilities. During my time at SOU, I took many of my law classes with a student who was deaf. She had an assistant who would stand at the front of the classroom and sign during lectures. Was this occasionally distracting? Yes. BUT, there was also no question in my mind that the importance of my classmate's access to education far outweighed any minor distraction that I may have encountered due to her personal assistant's presence in the class.
My classmate? She's often featured on fliers from SOU's alumni association's requests for financial support. She's touted as being a perfect example of how SOU accommodates traditional and non-traditional students alike.
Except when they don't, apparently.
Because the bottom line, from my perspective, is this: Eliza paid to audit a ceramics class. SOU gladly accepted her money, and allowed her to do that. SOU decided that she was a disruption in class, and kicked her out. The fact that she was a disruption is something that every single one of her classmates denies. But even if she were a disruption in class, it seems to me that the appropriate thing to do would have been to allow Eliza to finish her last 5 classes (one to two weeks worth), and then to address her participation in any further classes at THAT point.
Right now, I am ashamed to be a graduate of Southern Oregon University.
I'd like to see Eliza's story more widely circulated, because I just don't think it's okay. I'd like to see more people sign the petition to allow Eliza to return to school (http://elizasou.epetitions.net/) Even though it's no longer an option for her to continue her ceramics class, I think it is important for Eliza to see how many people support her, and feel that the school acted incorrectly.