Protest continues to mount over a decision by Southern Oregon University to exclude a non-credit student with Down syndrome from an introductory ceramics course. The decision comes almost 35 years after the enactment of federal legislation that opened public school doors to students with disabilities.
More than 700 people have signed an online petition urging the reinstatement of 20-year-old Eliza Schaaf. An online column by San Francisco school board member Rachel Norton on SFGate.com called the university’s decision “appalling.”
College officials abruptly withdrew Schaaf from the course last month, saying that she is not qualified to meet the academic standards necessary to participate. Alissa Arp, dean of SOU’s college of arts and sciences, wrote in a letter to Schaaf that her presence in the class had resulted in a “disruption of curriculum delivery and interfered with the teaching and learning environment for the instructor and other students.” Schaaf had attended Ashland High School and had been fully included in her educational career up until that time.
SOU dean of students Laura O’Bryan upheld the decision this week in a letter that referred to Schaaf’s enrollment as a “novel situation.”
“The non-admitted policy was not designed or intended to provide an avenue for participation to individuals who are not otherwise qualified for admission to SOU,” O’Bryan wrote.
Norton, a former member of the San Francisco Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, noted that Eliza’s family had apparently made a reasonable effort to prepare the university and assure that the young woman had an orderly transition to college life.
An excerpt from Norton’s column:
I hereby wish to invoke the power of the Internets to show Southern Oregon University how wrong-headed they are by failing to see the benefits (let alone the moral imperative) of including a person with a disability.
… 35 years after the signing of IDEA, students who have experienced inclusive environments throughout their K-12 educations are now knocking on the doors of colleges like yours. Eventually, they’re going to gain access. Wouldn’t it be better if you figured out a way to welcome them?
An editorial from the [Medford, Oregon] Mail Tribune says Schaaf should be allowed to complete the course, but the editorial writers leave open the question of whether the university has an obligation to serve what they call an “unusual” student. An excerpt:
… While it is difficult from the outside to understand all the issues in this case – SOU isn’t talking about it – it’s clear that universities should be able to bar some students from some classes. Even students who graduate from high school have no intrinsic right to a college education: It’s for those who can meet the academic requirements of entry.
But the university does bear responsibility for making clear who can and can’t attend.
… [The family's] experience speaks not necessarily to whether Schaaf’s presence in the class was appropriate but to how well the university was, or wasn’t, able to handle an unusual student’s desire to enroll.
The university ought to let Schaaf finish out the term in ceramics – and then turn its attention to addressing that issue long-term.
- SOU dean reaffirms decision to drop art student with Down syndrome — Medford, Oregon, Mail Tribune
- SOU dean stands by decision to drop student — Ashland, Oregon, Daily Tidings
- SOU denies disabled woman’s appeal — Medford, Oregon, Mail Tribune
- Classmates of Down syndrome student protest withdrawal — Ashland, Oregon, Daily Tidings
- Community rallies behind Down syndrome student — Medford, Oregon, Mail Tribune
- The lexicon of enrolling for a course [an explanation of the distinction between "non-admitted" students and "audit" students at Southern Oregon University] — Medford, Oregon, Mail Tribune
A website maintained by Eliza Schaaf’s family carries many messages of support.