Saturday, June 18, 2011

Deb's email response to 2 SOU students, administrators and faculty - PLUS Full DISCLOSURE OF ELIZA -SOU FILINGS AND RESPONSES

The following email was sent June 17th by Deb in response to a series of emails that went back and forth the week prior to SOU graduation on June11th, between 2 SOU seniors who saw Eliza speak at the June 1st Premiere and Community Forum Night and some SOU administrators and faculty. These students and many others came away frustrated over their realization of the effects on the University's actions toward Eliza juxtaposed to what they witnessed when

Eliza spoke to the crowd, the Hold my Hand documentary, the think college trailer and the community discussion discussion. These seniors asked some faculty members and administrators to explain how and why this happened and expressed their desire to see the University apologize and include Eliza. A teacher and administrator responded to the students' emails citing that it is complicated, much time has been spent trying to do the right thing, that we (the parents) might have an agenda, that what happened in the classroom wasn't accurately represented in the media and that the Professor and administrators met repeatedly with us to try and work out a solution. Below is my response to this correspondence that I was copied on to further clarify what transpired from our shoes and disclose the information that we have not previously posted on the blog.

Benji, Sarah, Ms White, Dean Arp, Dr. Eldridge,

It has taken me a few days to collect my thoughts on how to respond to this collection of emails. I'm sure we can all agree that hurt and anger has been felt on both sides of this equation and I believe that Benji speaks the truth when he said a lot of this might have been avoided had communication been prevalent. Unfortunately, we were left out of the dialog through the events of last fall far more than has been implied in the emails below. The communication we provided in good faith to the university prior to class was based on what we know about Eliza and how she can best be accommodated in classroom settings. She asked for an assistant and we asked if we could provide that. It was our impression that we needed Professor approval for that to happen. What we weren't aware of going in is that there would be only 1 possible option for a personal assistant - designed for someone with physical disabilities - not the issues that Eliza lives with. Eliza's biggest limitation is social shyness that can make moving through spaces and speaking up to people she doesn't know well in a classroom setting a challenge.

As Benji and Sarah witnessed on June 1st, Eliza has far less shyness around public speaking and has long been able to share her knowledge and demonstrate her learning through being able to write down her thoughts in advance and share those with a group, similar to what happened her final day of the ceramics class on Nov 8th, when she presented her self critique of her first ceramics project to her classmates. Eliza benefits from modeling, experiential hands-on learning and repetition to process and assimilate information - all of which were in abundance in the introduction to ceramics class.

In day to day classroom interactions, establishing a community of learners and rapport with peers and teachers is helpful in alleviating her social shyness which was what I was attempting to do as facilitator the first week. A peer mentor, as was suggested in the meeting with Vicki Purslow, Laura O'Bryon, and Sue Walsh would have helped facilitate and accommodate this limitation much like a hearing impaired person benefits from a sign interpreter. Learning definitely happens for Eliza in a very meaningful and positive way thus her hope of being able to partake in the college experience with specific goals in mind. We explained in the beginning, in the middle and in the end that what she was asking for was to try this and learn from her experience how to navigate at a college level. She did not come in knowing everything she needed to know, but was hoping, and is still hoping, to learn it.

She does not learn the same as others and granted it is very obvious from the reaction she received from the administration that SOU wasn't very aware of what is going on at other colleges and Universities concerning students with intellectual disabilities. Self determination, self advocacy, job skills, specific topics of interest and increased independence are often sited as goals students are hoping to achieve in their college experience. Our family, over years of watching Eliza grow and learn, has had the advantage of paying attention to the opportunities that exist elsewhere and seeing the benefits of inclusive education both in K-12 and more recently in post secondary options for students like Eliza.

In researching SOU last summer, Eliza and I read the rules of the non-admitted and auditing policies and website information about Southern Oregon University being an inclusive campus and welcoming diversity. We interpreted those statements as reflective of a community that would also welcome Eliza. When she was given permission to come, it never dawned on us that there would be some who might have issue with that or not be interested in seeing the learning that was happening. It also never occurred to us that if there were concerns, that the Professor would not talk to Eliza or us directly about her concerns. We did expect Eliza to be treated the same as other students, namely, if she couldn't do the work, she would flunk the course. We never in our wildest dreams imagined that she would be removed prematurely from the class with no warning.

In looking at what inclusion means, to us it is about valuing everyone, even those that are different, with the understanding that everyone has something to offer. Eliza has always contributed to the learning around her and in her dedication to the art she was producing, demonstrated her learning daily. As Eliza would say - "I am not a disability. I am a person...a person who likes to learn." Seeing the person and her many abilities is important for understanding what learning did take place last fall.

I believe that what got in the way was the perception of some that she did not fit in with what they envisioned the art program should be and there was a fear that others like Eliza might permeate the more "prestigious" hope of what those in the art department might aspire to have the SOU fine arts program be. This is problematic as some feel that education should be for those who desire to obtain information - be it through taking a course for credit or through furthering your knowledge by auditing classes of interest. In Eliza's case it was never about whether she obtained the credit or not, just the experience and learning about ceramics. Those were what she was getting. And, interestingly enough, the first week after I was asked by Dean O'Bryon to not speak to Eliza or the other students - and Professor Strangfeld and Eliza's classmates had to step in more - that was the week that everybody's anxiety went up, I'm sure. No one had a clue as to what Eliza might need or want, nor did they ask, so we all stepped back and watched.

When we got called in to meet after that 2nd week of classes, what we were told was it was to be a meeting with Laura O'Bryon. No one told Eliza or us what the nature of the meeting was going to be about or that other people would be present. While concerns were certainly evident at this meeting, we explained, I thought quite well, what Eliza's issues were and why she was asking for the accommodation she needed. The curriculum should never be altered, and it was not necessary for the Professor to take undue time with Eliza. The communication that took place in that meeting was the only time we ever spoke with Vicki Purslow and Sue Walsh. It was also the only time we were ever made aware that there was concern over Eliza’s participation in the class.

As for Professor Strangfeld, I have remained consistent in my praise of her interactions with Eliza in class. When we returned to class following the meeting on Oct. 11, I informed Prof. Strangfeld that she now had permission to speak to me, if she so wished. I also asked her if it would be alright if I facilitated Eliza so that she wouldn't feel like she had to take undue time. She said to me that she was fine with that. So that's what I did, assuming I had full permission to do so. In all my interactions with Prof. Strangfeld, through the 13 classes Eliza attended she never once indicated that she had concerns with Eliza being in the class. She was warm, inclusive, talked to Eliza about her projects and answered Eliza's questions when she needed help. So, I would disagree that anyone, other than the 3 women in the room on Oct 11th, ever talked to us about concerns over Eliza. Even when Laura O'Bryon called us back on Oct 12 to let us know that we no longer needed to supply the paperwork for Eliza's disability, she made no mention of the decision that an art student mentor would not be looked for. She asked if Eliza wanted or needed a note taker and I explained that seeing as she was switching to audit that either I, or the art major peer mentor, could do that if needed, but that I didn't see any need for it. Interestingly, we learned later, that following the Oct 11th meeting, Disabilities Resources was consulted and the idea of finding an art major student was dropped and yet Laura O'Bryon never mentioned that to us in her phone conversation.

The conversation with Dean O’Bryon on Oct 12th was the last communication we had with anyone in the administration until the letter arrived on Nov 8th announcing Eliza’s removal. So you can see that only one dialog, on Oct 11th, ever took place over anything which indicated a concern with Eliza. I assumed since the suggestion was made by either Dr. Walsh or Dr. Purslow in that meeting that Eliza switch to audit, that switching her to audit would alleviate the concern over Eliza's accommodation of having a personal assistant of either me or a peer that would be allowed to facilitate her shyness and that, because Eliza would no longer be held responsible for all (or any) aspects of the course, per the audit rules, that all was fine. No one ever bothered to tell us differently.

On the point raised that Eliza was a safety concern in the class, I feel this is very disingenuous. Eliza is shy, she is quiet, she is cautious, but she is not a safety threat to herself or to others. After reading the investigative report submitted by Joe Holliday and referenced in President Cullinan's decision, it is obvious that there were concerns and claims made by the Professor that no one else present in the class would have agreed with. I can only say that these perhaps were due to a far more uncomfortable disposition of the Professor toward Eliza than was ever apparent in class. Then one has to wonder who struggled with Eliza's inclusion? - the Professor? the art department? the administration? - or all of the above? Or was the bigger concern, my presence in the class, in which case our and Eliza's desire to have a peer mentor WOULD have alleviated some of the mentioned concerns of having one's Mother in a college class - something I agree wholeheartedly is NOT the best choice.

I think the 19 students made it abundantly clear with their surprise and disbelief over Eliza’s removal (equal to our own) that they did not see Eliza as a disruption or a threat to their education, but actually the opposite. Eliza was doing the work on her projects right along with the other students. As reported, she didn't always participate in the discussions, nor did some of the other students. She wasn't always able to complete doing all the critiques of other students' art - something she either should have been graded appropriately for or when she switched to audit was a mute point. But she was learning HOW to do them.

The report also indicated that the choice to remove Eliza and consult an Office of Civil Rights attorney to follow proper procedures came after the first 2 weeks - one of which was without the requested accommodation. No one seemed to note very accurately what took place over the next 9 class periods when Eliza was accommodated, less shy and continuing to do her work. Of note was no mention of the thought that went into her projects and the actual art she produced or of holding her to tasks that she wasn't obligated to do as an auditing student. From our perspective now, her removal seemed to almost be premeditated or at least the preferred outcome from the beginning by some with no evidence of simply informing, communicating or troubleshooting concerns for a positive accommodated outcome. There still remains no attempt to acknowledge what she actually accomplished as a student in the class other than what was witnessed and communicated by her class peers and by those who have seen her art. Typically, if a student works quietly and diligently on projects even if they don't perform to the level of class expectations, the grade would reflect their effort and accomplishments accordingly. We are not aware in the case of some one who is not a disruption to others (as was witnessed by all 19 of her peers), of why they would be summarily removed from the class for their performance.

The final indication of poor communication or perhaps better categorized as miscommunication was my asking Professor Strangfeld, after the class had ended when Eliza was picking up her work, one question: If the administration could see their way clear to allowing Eliza to be a student, and Eliza wished to take another ceramics course, would she be willing to have Eliza in her class as an auditing student? Her answer was yes, she would be fine with that...So…I would ask you, how were we suppose to interpret the information that we were given from the communication we received? Our reaction to Eliza's removal was shock and disbelief and one directed at what we thought was extremely poor communication, possibly some hidden agenda, a blatant disregard for Eliza as a person, exercising removal on grounds that were either unsubstantiated or would NOT have resulted in removal of a non-disabled student, and failure to listen to what we or the 900+ petition signers and 65+ people who wrote letters on Eliza's behalf were asking for which was just see the person and let her finish. It didn't seem like much to ask for and certainly would have avoided a world of hurt at our end and a whole host of community awareness that now exists on this issue.

So...I'm not sure I agree that we ever had an “agenda” coming in...if we did it was to support Eliza in her desire to have a college experience alongside her age peers, the rest has merely been the outcome of someone’s or some groups’ quick-to-judge and perhaps fear-based projections to future possible scenarios that didn't meet their idea of an art program or University learning. I would think that most Professors typically, if they have concerns with a particular student, simply approach that student and trouble shoot how to alleviate the concern. In this case, that did not happen. It was the outwardly portrayed inclusive attitude communicated to Eliza from Professor Strangfeld juxtaposed against the claims being made via the one administrative meeting and letters, that have led to our confusion over who has issues with Eliza being a student at SOU, what the real issues/fears were and why simple courtesy, respect and honest dialog to address personal concerns that existed weren’t taken in the first place?

Were there better ways this could have been handled?...Absolutely. One would have been to actually talk to Eliza and/or us about concerns. Another would have been to let her finish and then talk about the concerns. What other colleges are finding is that allowing students with intellectual differences on their college campuses enhances the experience for everyone. Your own students are among those who would desire this. Often the difference is seeing abilities rather than disabilities. I realize it is a new concept to many and it doesn't get much credit when faculty and administrators see academic achievement as the sole purpose of their higher educational goals. Others value much more than just the academic achievement and have made a point of finding ways to value all persons and welcome students with intellectual differences on their campuses.

Someone asked what the point of making the documentary of Eliza was? I think the point that the film makers would claim was to show who Eliza is, tell in her voice what effect the 'quick to judge decision' has had on her...and it has been significant to someone such as Eliza who believes fully in the value of education based in large part on what she has gained from her own public school education. She never knew prior to this experience that college is not for all who desire to go, but rather for a more select group – even if coming in as a non-admitted student to access a few classes. Our opinion is that education is good and therefore should be assessable to all who desire it. This is the direction this whole situation has taken for us, to try and enlighten others as to why it might be good for not only Eliza, but for everyone else to have Eliza at college whether that is SOU or some other college or University. We now hope that Eliza and the Hold My Hand documentary will help open the discussion for others to explore the reasons why, so that individuals with intellectual differences can partake at many more colleges in the future.

As for SOU, we have asked in every way we know how to merely sit down and talk this through: before the class ended to just let Eliza finish; following the President's decision when we new that the Documentary would be made; with the Chancellor's office after learning from Peter Buckley that they seemed willing to talk. Every time, we have been turned down. If the public has been weighing in on the side of Eliza, that could be perhaps because some unfortunate decisions where made without fully allowing Eliza to show who she is and what she could learn. She was removed before you really had any idea what her capability was and is. This, in most cases would be deemed prejudice or discrimination for being treated differently. It appears, as you no doubt now know that the Office of Civil Rights, (we are guessing that you knew this would be the case) has decided that your 'procedure' of investigating the grievance satisfied them to the point of not looking any further at whether Eliza was discriminated against or not. It hardly seems fair, but it is apparently the way these things work making us wonder if the University has ever found itself guilty of discriminating against someone? We wouldn't expect you would want to find that to be the case. As for our course, we could file a federal lawsuit - spend a bunch of money on both sides and for what end? To prove we are right? This seems unwise although tempting.

As for disclosure, Eliza has NOT signed a blanket FERPA although attempts have been made to sign a FERPA enabling some of the SOU students to talk openly with the administration and of course they have always had permission to talk to us. To date and for the record, we have personally spent $5311 in attorney's fees and about $1600 on presenting the premiere and community forum night. The only pieces of information that we are aware of concerning Eliza that we have not here-to-for disclosed to the public are the following:

- Eliza's Formal Grievance

- The President's Decision

- Our informal request to meet with Oregon University System (OUS) Joe Holliday and Chancellor Pernsteiner

- A letter from the Chancellor's office denying our request,

- Peter Buckley's Meeting with Joe Holliday

- Our appeal to the Chancellor

- The Chancellor's reply

- Our complaint to the Office of Civil Rights

- The letter received from the Office of Civil Rights.

We know of no other information and gladly share these with the public to let them decide whether we have misrepresented Eliza or SOU's handling of her treatment. If there is other information circulating behind the scenes disclosing Eliza's character or behavior in class that was mentioned as having been presented to the Faculty Senate last fall and is not included in this information, then we are not privy to it, but would be glad to have that information shared first with us and then the public. We also urge everyone to watch the recording of the community forum night to see Hold My Hand, hear Eliza's speech, watch the Think College Trailer and listen to what several of the ceramics students who were in the class have to say about the experience from their perspective. Many community members, now having witnessed Eliza's abilities, spoke up for their wish that students like Eliza, who so desire to continue their education, be allowed to do so.

What we really want to know is...how would you feel about creating a program at SOU? That was the point of the Premiere and Community Forum Night on June 1st and we are sorry that Dr. Eldridge did not take us up on our invitation to come and speak to the community about SOU's desires. Our understanding from President Cullinan's letter and in Peter Buckley's conversation with Joe Holliday that OUS is working on developing an inclusive program for students with intellectual disabilities. I was surprised that you would not have welcomed the opportunity to announce this and discuss it with the public.

Lastly, I just received an email today from a Dr. Dedra Hafner who developed the Cutting Edge Program at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. I had asked her to send me information on the Pilot Program they conducted in 2007-2008. She sent me the following link (http://www.innovationsnow.net/ - click on New! Inclusion in College Research), to her Doctorate of Education dissertation which was on implementing the pilot program. Edgewood now has a full fledged inclusive program for students with intellectual disabilities on their campus and I think you might find Dr. Hafner's study informative on how they conducted their pilot and why the benefits they discovered have become a permanent part of their campus life. It is a program similar to this one that we, and many in the community, would be interested in collaboratively moving forward on with SOU. There have also been many in the community, including Ashland School District Special Education director Samuel Bogdanove and Living Opportunity's Executive Director Roger Hassenpflug who have expressed interest in working collaboratively on creating a pilot and eventual program at SOU.

So far it is the SOU administration that has remained completely silent on the subject despite President Cullinan saying in her February decision letter to Eliza that “SOU welcomes the opportunity to participate in a broader dialogue related to students with intellectual disabilities.” Several times FERPA has been cited for the reason Dr. Eldridge and others have declined to participate in community discussions. This I don’t understand. It does not require Eliza’s FERPA permission to join in a discussion about the pros and cons of creating a program that would allow Eliza and others access to SOU where they would be welcomed as a part of the diverse and inclusive campus. This is what many of your students and faculty are asking for. This is the discussion that is needed.

It is our hope that we all learned something from the unfortunate experience of last fall. We also now feel that creating positive programs that include might be a better way to spend our time and energy and align the Ashland community and SOU student desires with the administration and faculty desires. We would welcome the participation and leadership needed from SOU to start the process, form a local cohort of interested people, hold informational community forums and begin looking at programs to model a potential pilot program off of. We encourage you to join us in this effort.

Sincerely,

Deb Evans
541-601-4748
debron3@gmail.com

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