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SOU responds to failing-grade suit: 'Coursework will speak for itself'

In response to a student’s lawsuit claiming he failed two classes because the school inconsistently accommodated his learning disabilities, Southern Oregon University argues that Mikhail Savona received “numerous accommodations” and said it stands by the academic standards committee that denied changing his F grade in a freshman-level class last year.

Environmental Science 101, a class Savona must pass to graduate, was the most recent of two classes that Savona says he failed because the school and the professor refused to accommodate his documented learning disabilities, denying him orally proctored exams and greater latitude with grammatical errors in his writing, among other accommodations.

The lawsuit, seeking damages of up to $1 million, was first filed in U.S. District Court in Medford last fall after administrators refused to change the grade at a March 6 university hearing.

In SOU’s May 9 response, the university argues that Savona’s “coursework for that course will speak for itself.” At the March 6 Academic Standards Committee hearing facilitated by a provost, the committee found “insufficient evidence” to overturn his grade.

The university says Savona had “numerous academic accommodations, including testing accommodations” available to him during the course.

Further, SOU lists a multitude of services the university had provided him since fall 2014 to accommodate his doctor-diagnosed dyscalculia, dysgraphia, dysthymia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Those services included priority registration for classes, note-taking services, use of a LiveScribe pen for note-taking, reading aloud of directions and questions, latitude on spelling and grammar, scribes for exams, extra time during exams and opportunities to take exams in reduced-distraction environments.

“Each of those accommodations were (and are) available to him, as necessary, if and when he properly requested them,” the university wrote.

Savona also failed an introductory business administration class in the 2014-15 school year that he never contested, then transferred to another school for the 2015-16 academic year, according to court documents filed by the university and an updated complaint filed April 25 by Savona’s lawyer, Christopher Cauble.

Cauble said that before his client signed up for the class, professor Charles Lane and an academic adviser told Savona that as long as he “showed up for class and did the work he would pass the course,” a claim the university partially concedes.

“Defendants admit that Dr. Lane may have made a comment to a group of students of the Fall 2016 ES101 course, who were taking the class pass/no pass, that if they showed up to class, continued to perform at the level they had been performing at and did the work, they would be fine,” the university writes, denying any remaining allegations “except as expressly admitted.”

Atop damages, Cauble argues for an injunction that “complies with federal discrimination law and other applicable law” including the elimination of the courses Savona failed as a requirement for graduation.

“Plaintiff also asks this court to permit the Attorney General to intervene in this action as this is a case of general public importance,” Cauble writes.

Cauble also lists two additional incomplete grades Savona received in fall and winter 2014-15 for University Foundations, introductory courses focused on writing, speaking, critical thinking and research skills.

In that class he was denied the opportunity to take oral examinations and not allowed greater latitude on grammatical errors in his writing, among other testing accommodations.

“These actions have been an ongoing issue since the 2014-15 academic year and the 2016-present academic years,” Cauble writes.

The university countered that Savona eventually brought his grades up in the two classes to C and C-minus “after receiving significant support through Disability Resources to complete missing work.” Incomplete grades otherwise become F grades after 12 months, SOU’s academic policy handbook shows.

The university argues that because they made good-faith efforts to comply with the law, punitive damages are inappropriate or barred.

“Any alleged statutory violations were not willful,” the university states.

The evidence-gathering portion of the lawsuit is expected to finish at the end of June, and further motions and counter-motions are currently scheduled to wrap up by the end of August.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

Churchill Hall at Southern Oregon University. [Mail Tribune file photo]