Caleb won't walk alone at graduation

What could have been a feel-bad story about a sensitive topic looks like it might have a feel-good ending.

Caleb Maler, an autistic 19-year-old who is educated through the Grants Pass School District, will get a diploma Friday night at Grants Pass High School's Mel Ingram Field.

He's not going to be in the main ceremony at 7 p.m., but in a separate event at 5 p.m.

The school was concerned that possible behavioral outbursts might be disruptive. Separate ceremonies have been done in the past at GPHS for the same reason.

"All things being equal, we want every kid in the regular ceremony, but sometimes that isn't possible," Principal Ryan Thompson said.

Caleb's father, Nelson Maler, was hesitant to air his disappointment.

"As a parent, you always want your child to be part of a ceremony that the school does," said Maler, president of the Grants Pass Rotary Club. "We have to honor and respect the school's decision. They thought it wasn't appropriate for him to be there."

Eight days ago at the Grants Pass Chamber of Commerce greeters' breakfast, Maler said that only three people had committed to going to Caleb's separate ceremony, in addition to the family, which includes the young man's mother Elizabeth and his sister Sarah, an accomplished ballerina.

Maler made an impassioned plea, according to a Facebook post by his friend Dan Bowden.

"Although Caleb is well-known and loved in the community, and is present at many Rotary and other community events with his father, he has few personal friendships," Bowden posted.

Now it looks like Caleb will get a big, supportive crowd.

"Nelson has done a lot for the Chamber, a lot for Rotary, so it's time for all of us to be supportive of him," said Colene Martin, CEO of the Chamber. "I know I'm going. There will be a lot of people there."

Nelson Maler said if others would like to attend, they should meet in front of the District 7 Administration Building next to the football stadium at 5 p.m.

"He went from walking all by himself a week ago to what I think is going to be a huge gathering of community support behind him," Maler said. "The community has wrapped their arms around him and said, 'We'll be there for you.' It's a beautiful thing."

Thompson, the GPHS principal, said there are actually two special ceremonies Friday before the regular ceremony. He declined to speak about them specifically, but said singling out students has been done in the past, for medical and behavioral reasons.

"It's case-by-case," Thompson said. "An example might be some students with stress-induced seizures. That's not something we want to put a child through and have them be embarrassed."

"We do want to recognize the student and their accomplishment, and do so in a way that has honor and dignity. We make great efforts to make sure they feel recognized and rewarded."

Not all schools handle the ceremonies the same way.

North Valley High Principal Dennis Misner said the school makes an effort to include all special-needs students in graduation ceremonies.

"We have an adult walk with them if they're impaired," Misner said. "We give them that moment in the sunshine."

Misner did say the school has accommodated parents who didn't want their child to be exposed to the public.

"We figure out a way to do something with that family," he said. "We give them the opt-out opportunity."

Hidden Valley had special-needs students walk in its ceremony Tuesday night.

Principal Daye Stone said in his 13 years as a principal, including five at Hidden Valley, he doesn't remember having a separate ceremony for potentially disruptive students, though he could see it being a difficult call for an administrator in certain cases.

"Anybody who has special needs, we make accommodations for them in the ceremony itself," Stone said. "Unless there is a safety threat, we're 100 percent inclusive."

— Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or

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