SOU students protest rejection of woman with Down syndrome
ASHLAND — About 20 students demonstrated Thursday at Southern Oregon University to protest an administrative decision to withdraw a student with Down syndrome.
Eliza Schaaf, 20, a graduate of Ashland High School, was auditing a ceramics class as a way to share the college experience with her friends from high school, her parents said.
She already had completed two-thirds of the class when she received a letter Nov. 8 notifying her she would be withdrawn because she was not qualified to meet academic standards, even with accommodations, and disrupted instruction in the class. The letter also said the family would be given a full refund of tuition and fees.
Members of Schaaf's class and the university's Student Senate have formally opposed the administration's decision through petitions and a resolution.
Thursday's protest included one of Schaaf's classmates, sophomore Mollie Mustoe, members of the Student Senate and other student activists. The demonstration began in the courtyard of the Stevenson Union, where organizers stood under a tent sheltered from the rain and ladled out hot soup and bread for students, who were asked to sign a petition in support of Schaaf. The group then marched to the Hannon Library to demonstrate outside the front doors.
The group collected about 40 signatures Thursday, said junior Emery Way.
In addition, all 19 students in Schaaf's class have signed a separate petition stating that Schaaf did not disrupt their ability to learn in class and ask questions of the instructor.
"I think we would all be in agreement that she added to our experience at SOU," said Mustoe, who spearheaded the class petition.
She said what bothered her most was that the administration used students in the class as a reason to withdraw Schaaf without consulting those students.
"No one from the administration observed the class, and the administration never had a dialogue with the students about what we felt," she said.
Schaaf's mother, Deb Evans, had acted as her personal assistant at the beginning of the term but was restricted from how much she could help her because of a personal assistant contract between Evans and the university.
The contract was designed for students with physical disabilities rather than mental ones and restricted Evans to setting up Schaaf's work space, Evans said.
"She worked almost as independently as me," Mustoe said. "What she couldn't do on her own that's what the personal assistant was for."
SOU administrators have said federal law prohibits them from discussing Schaaf's situation specifically, but Jon Eldridge, vice president of student services, said the university does all it can to provide accommodations to students with disabilities, as long as those accommodations don't interfere with the delivery of the curriculum.
The Student Senate voted unanimously Tuesday on a resolution asking the administration to allow Schaaf to remain on campus and to give Schaaf due process, said Paul Jenkins, a student senator.
"The student body doesn't feel the decision was appropriate at all," said Jenkins, a junior at SOU. "We don't think due process has been served. Eliza is part of our community and should be allowed access to an education."
Schaaf's father, Ron Schaaf, said the Student Senate's unanimous vote was overwhelming.
"It's so gratifying to know other people believe in Eliza, other than her parents (and friends)," he said. "We hope this will lead to a good conclusion."
A Schaaf family friend, Richard Holbo of Ashland, has developed www.elizaschaaf.com to tell her story and provide a place where people can show support for her and share anecdotes about her.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.