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Deaf students ask schools to listen

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Current and former students in the countywide Program for Deaf and Hard of Hearing services are asking Medford School District not to split the program next year by bringing its own students back to their resident district.

“These kids deserve to stay together with their signing peers and have full-time access to (American Sign Language),” said Aimee Holmes, a parent who spoke at the Medford School Board’s April 22 meeting. “Please do not allow them to be separated and isolated.”

Medford students make up about half of the 28 students participating in the PDHH program, which has been hosted by the Central Point School District for more than 40 years. The services, including ASL interpretation and assistive technology, are provided through the Southern Oregon Education Service District.

Michelle Cummings, chief academic officer for the Medford School District, said the most recent version of the plan would keep the elementary cohort at Mae Richardson but would move the middle school program, currently composed entirely of Medford students, to McLoughlin Middle School from its current home at Scenic Middle School.

At the high school level, Medford students would be brought to South Medford High School, while students from other districts would have the option to attend there or Crater High School.

Medford’s students who are moving from one school level to the next would be moved next year, but if they are not, they’ll have the option to stay at their Central Point campus until they complete every grade there.

Cummings said details of the plan may change again, however, after regional district leaders meet Thursday to discuss it further.

“As you heard at the school board meeting, we are hoping to create a place of belonging for every student and create high quality education for all students,” Cummings said in a phone interview Monday. “And that includes our students who qualify as profoundly deaf and hard of hearing.”

But a number of current and former students as well as their parents who turned out to the board meeting offered a resounding protest against moving the program or splitting up students between districts.

Steve Wasserman, a 30-year veteran teacher and ASL instructor at Southern Oregon University who has worked with the PDHH program, was the first to speak.

Wasserman is deaf, and he described deafness as “one of the most devastating disabilities in the world,” due to the communication barriers between deaf students and hearing people.

“The move of the deaf students from Central Point to Medford is actually going to negatively impact all the kids, not just the Medford kids,” he said. “To isolate a deaf student, one, two or three in Medford under the guise of least restrictive environment is so wrong. It’s devastating.”

Least restrictive environment is a term that comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. It asserts that children receiving special education services should spend as much time as possible with peers not receiving special education services.

Students’ and parents’ protests centered largely on the social emotional impacts on children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

The best antidote to the isolation that comes with deafness, they said, is the larger community of deaf peers created by the fact that the program has always been hosted in one school district.

Samantha Castaneda, a junior and student body president at Crater High School, said the group is already small. Cutting it more would damage the community and put stress on interpreters splitting time between schools, she said.

“Maybe the first few years, it’d be such a struggle,” she said. “(Deaf students) wouldn’t graduate with their peers. It’s just not fair to those who are deaf, that their education might be behind if they don’t have enough access.”

Joseph Mella, a sophomore at Crater, said he gained confidence from having so many deaf classmates with whom he can attend school and participate in the Deaf Academic Bowl.

“At lunchtime, it’s a really important time for us,” he said. “In middle school, I was always alone, and it was really sad for me.”

Emilio Amante, a senior, thinks the move just isn’t worth it.

“They have that community here,” Amante said. “The program would become so small, which means the program would have to work harder to get the deaf kids together on like a field trip or something.”

Watch the students give their thoughts in the video below:

Susan Peck, who heads special education services at SOESD, said she wants families to know that students will receive services they need regardless of location.

Brian Shumate, superintendent of Medford schools, said at the board meeting that the move “has nothing to do with trying to harm that program in any way, or shut it down.”

“It has to do with us (being) willing to serve the kids who live here, and the residents who pay ... hefty property taxes to live in Medford. And I want to be able to look those families in the eye and say we’ll serve all your kids, no matter what they bring to the table.”

But not all parents with multiple children in the Medford School District consider that to be reason enough.

Mike Neilitz, a Medford father to a deaf daughter in kindergarten as well as multiple other hearing children, said that bringing students with needs like his daughter’s back to their home district shouldn’t trump their needs for socialization among other deaf and hard-of-hearing peers.

“My primary problem with that is it’s become the deciding factor,” Neilitz said. “Not whether it’s good for the kids, it’s ‘We gotta bring them home.’”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Hear PDHH students' thoughts on the program and what they think might happen if it is split into different campuses. Video by Kaylee Tornay.Thumbnail
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Joseph Mella, a student at Crater High School, describes the impact that the program for deaf and hard of hearing students has had on his life.