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'It's just discrimination'

While excitement stills bubbles over this week's debut of the new South Medford High School, one small group of students with disabilities is missing out on the experience.

Parents of students with special needs are protesting a decision by the Medford School District and Southern Oregon Education Service District to keep a STEPS class for students with Down syndrome and other disabilities at the old South Medford building, now being used for the district's alternative high school, Central Medford High School.

They've launched a Facebook page to support their cause and are circulating a petition asking the Medford district and the ESD to reverse its decision.

"It's unbelievable," said Barbara Ingram, who has withdrawn Jonathan, her 16-year-old son with Down syndrome, from the STEPS program as a result of the decision. "It's just discrimination."

"The whole time the new high school was being built we expected Jonathan to move to the new school," Ingram said. "For two years, we saw it being built. At the end of last year, we heard rumors they weren't going to be included in the new school."

Then, in August, parents received a letter from the SOESD that confirmed those rumors.

SOESD and Medford district officials denied the decision was meant to discriminate against students, instead arguing that remaining at the old building is in the best interest of the STEPS students.

"The Central Medford High School is in close proximity to job sites, shopping and other activities STEPS students do," said SOESD Superintendent Scott Perry. "We are working with students who need a strong focus on vocational skills, living skills, access to transportation, shopping and work."

The location of the new school at 1551 Cunningham Ave. on the southwest edge of Medford is more remote, and students would have to be bused to all activities, said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long.

But Perry conceded that his agency had failed to adequately communicate with parents about what to expect. He said parents should have been informed about the decision earlier.

"I apologize for that, and we are taking steps to make sure it never happens again," Perry said.

Students will continue to be integrated with other students at Central Medford, with Central students serving as STEPS students' peer mentors and all students sharing music and physical education classes, Long said.

He said the old building also has more space available for the STEPS program than the new one. The STEPS classroom this year is twice as large as its previous space and is being remodeled, Long said.

Ingram said she's not comfortable with her son going to school with Central Medford High School students because some of them have been expelled from other Medford high schools and have had behavior problems.

"He is nonverbal," she said. "He can't tell me if somebody hits him."

She plans to homeschool him through the Logos Public Charter School.

On Wednesday, the ESD board will hear concerns from parents at a 7 p.m. meeting at the SOESD office at 101 N. Grape St. in Medford.

So far, parents have collected about 200 signatures calling on the ESD and Medford district to connect the STEPS students with the student body at the new high school.

"It's sending a message to all the typically developed students that the special needs part of their community is less important," said Emilie Sampson, mother of a 5-year-old son with autism. "Our tax dollars went toward building the new school. As someone who contributed, I feel the school should have been built for all students."

Although the STEPS class is provided by ESD as a program for multiple school districts, it has been located at the old South Medford building and considered part of the South Medford student community for the past 20 years.

Not all of the students in the class are from Medford. There also are students from the Phoenix-Talent and Ashland school districts, said Sandra Crews, the ESD's director of special education services.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

Barbara Ingram has enrolled Jonathan, her 16-year-old son with Down syndrome, in a homeschool program as a result of a decision to keep the STEPS class for special needs students at Central Medford High School. - Bob Pennell