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SOU dean stands by decision to drop student

Southern Oregon University's dean of students has upheld her decision to drop a 20-year-old woman with Down syndrome from a university-level ceramics class.

Eliza Schaaf, who graduated last June from Ashland High School, received a certified letter Saturday from Dean of Students Laura O'Bryan stating that her decision would stand. In the letter, dated Nov. 19, Bryan reiterated that no accommodations are available to Schaaf that would enable her participation without altering the coursework.

Schaaf, who enjoys art, enrolled in the class as a way to share the college experience with her friends from high school, her parents said.

The dean offered Schaaf the opportunity to return to the ceramics lab to complete her project and obtain a critique of her sculpture from the instructor Dec. 8 after the final day of classes Dec. 1.

"We deeply regret that this process has caused you pain," O'Bryan wrote.

Deb Evans, Schaaf's mother, said she strongly disagreed with O'Bryan's conclusion, which, she felt, has tarnished the university's reputation."We still feel really strongly she should be allowed to return with dignity," Evans said. "That doesn't necessarily mean she has to be enrolled as a student. Even just as a guest, can she come and be part of the class?

"I think there's great frustration over the way she's been treated and how this has been handled," Evans added.

O'Bryan's letter was a response to an informal appeal by Schaaf and her parents to allow Schaaf to complete the ceramics course, for which only two classes remain.

Schaaf still may file a formal grievance with university President Mary Cullinan, but the family has not yet decided whether to do so, as the grievance likely wouldn't be resolved before the end of classes, Evans said.

In October, the family agreed to a university request to change Schaaf's status from a nonadmitted student for credit to an audit, Evans said. There was no warning that the university administration planned to remove Schaaf from the class, she said.

In the letter, O'Bryan stated that Schaaf's enrollment at SOU was a "novel situation" for the university. "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.

The university's decision has spawned an outpouring of support for Schaaf, including petitions by her classmates, other students and community members urging the administration to allow her to finish the class.

"The administration's blatant disregard for the feelings of its students or the community at large on these matters is shocking, and we will do our best to make the message of Eliza heard," wrote SOU sophomore and campus activist Emery Way in an e-mail to the Mail Tribune.

A Schaaf family friend has created a website to document Schaaf's accomplishments and her dealings with SOU at elizaschaaf.com.

"The university is being ridiculous over something they didn't need to be ridiculous about," Evans said. "It's painting a picture the students don't want, the community doesn't want."