Special ed placement results in emotional discussion

Sharing personal stories of how special education students had changed their lives, community members Tuesday urged the Medford School Board to reverse a decision to exclude a classroom for students with severe disabilities from the new South Medford High School.

South Medford moved to its new campus at Cunningham and Columbus avenues this fall, but the "STEPS" class remained behind at the old high school.

Now called Central Medford High School, it hosts the district's alternative school, formerly known as Medford Opportunity High School.

Having special education students on campus "was a boon to my character and to the environment of the school," said South Medford graduate Jonathan Wright.

"We, as a whole, became less selfish and more aware of other people's needs. Would that have happened without the students with disabilities."

Parents of STEPS students weren't informed of the plans to keep the classroom at the old building until August because of a lack of communication by the Southern Oregon Education Service District, which operates STEPS classrooms on behalf of districts in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties.

Scott Perry, the ESD's superintendent, has acknowledged the ESD failed to inform parents promptly and adequately about the decision and the reasons for it and has issued an apology.

The confusion over the decision, however, prompted a quick and emotional reaction from the special education community. The group created their own Facebook page and went to an ESD meeting earlier this month to discuss their concerns.

But some community members Tuesday emphasized the decision was as much of a loss to typically developing South Medford students as it was to STEPS students.

"That (humanizing experience) is being taken away from students at the new campus," said Don Azar, of the Down Syndrome Association of Southern Oregon. "We need to move the STEPS classroom (to the new South). It's the right thing to do."

Perry and Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long have said the decision was intended to benefit STEPS students, rather than exclude them. They said the old building provides more space, closer proximity to work programs in downtown Medford and a smaller high school setting. The STEPS students share the campus with about 200 Central Medford pupils, and STEPS students may participate in the school's programs, such as music and physical education.

Liz Sibert, parent of a STEPS student, said she was infuriated when she learned of the decision but after visiting the student body at Central Medford, she felt she understood why the district chose that location.

"Because of (Central students') different life experience, they seem to have some empathy for STEPS students," Sibert said.

Federal law calls for students with disabilities to be integrated in mainstream classrooms as much as possible while still meeting students' needs, a concept known as the "least restrictive environment.

Ashland resident Julianna Faulkner, who has Down Syndrome, spoke with poise about how her integration in high school in Park City, Utah, exposed her to typically developing friends and dance classes.

At age 25, she now works at a clothing shop and regularly exercises at a local gym.

"Can you tell?" she asked with a glow of humor.

Then, she became more sober.

"When I heard some kids are being left behind, I felt really sad, sad that the kids don't get to be together," she said.

Eric Thompson, a South Medford graduate who has autism, spoke about the valued friendships he made through his integration into the larger student body at South.

Thompson said typically developing students at the campus had a good influence on his development as a person.

"Things are possible even though they're different," Thompson said of his autism. "I trained myself that associating with people is good, and if we work together, we can make a difference. That's what I learned from high school."

Wright, Thompson's friend, then approached the podium to share how his interaction with Thompson in high school had made him a more compassionate and upstanding person.

"Kids were prone to making sport of kids with disabilities," Wright said. "I stood up and put a stop to it. I not only developed (sympathy for others), it gave me the courage to act contrary to the group."

The STEPS classroom, which used to stand for Special Training and Educational Program Services but now goes by "STEPS" alone, serves students with conditions such as severe retardation, Down Syndrome, autism and traumatic brain injury.

The ESD staffs and operate the classrooms, often pooling students from multiple school districts, but school districts provide the space for the classrooms. The STEPS classroom at the old South has been there for the past 20 years.

The class includes six Medford students, two students from the Phoenix-Talent School District and one student from Ashland, said Tania Tong, Medford's supervisor of student services.

Medford School Board members said they would discuss the decision to keep STEPS at the old building at a work session meeting Oct. 19.

"We are all for inclusion, and we would never consider moving away from inclusion" said Board Member Tricia Prendergast.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

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