When Chapman University filmmaking student Ruby Stocking graduated from Ashland High School in 2008, she had never met Eliza Schaaf, a classmate with Down syndrome.
Three years later, Schaaf's battle to attend a ceramics course at Ashland's Southern Oregon University became the topic of a documentary by Stocking and three other students at Chapman in Orange, Calif.
"Originally, going into the project we were hoping to make a film about SOU and its impact on Eliza having been withdrawn from the ceramics course," Stocking said. "We just realized there was a greater story within the SOU clash with Eliza, that story being inclusion and whether or not someone who is disabled should be included in society or whether they should be separated."
The documentary has been nominated for the university's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts Cecil Award for Best Documentary. It also will be entered into at least five film festivals.
Last fall, Schaaf enrolled in a college-level ceramics class as a non-admitted student at SOU. Non-admitted students may enroll in up to eight credits of classes but don't earn credit toward a degree. Midway through, the SOU administration decided to drop Schaaf from the class.
The university said Schaaf required excessive supervision and one-on-one attention that limited the instructor's ability to interact with the rest of the class. Schaaf's classmates signed a petition stating that Schaaf did not interfere with their ability to learn and asking that she be reinstated.
Schaaf's family has appealed the decision to the Oregon University System, which so far has upheld it.
Stocking heard about the story from a friend on Facebook around the time when she and classmates Bobby Moser, James Parker and Virginia Thomasi were looking for a topic on which to make a documentary for their Chapman class called Community Voices.
The documentary project was expected to highlight a social justice issue for an Orange County organization. The Dhont Family Foundation funds the student-made documentaries each year.
When the group contacted the Down Syndrome Association of Orange County, it learned the association already knew Schaaf's story, as it had gone viral among the Down syndrome community.
For eight days in February and March, the four students filmed Schaaf working out at the Ashland Family YMCA, volunteering at the Ashland Emergency Food Bank and doing other daily activities. They also collected home videos of Schaaf and interviewed her, her family and classmates.
"I thought the documentary would be a collection of activities and all the things Eliza can do and that it would downplay the SOU issue," said Deb Evans, Schaaf's mother. "They wove the story about her experience at SOU into a look at her life through her family and through who she is.
"They presented Eliza's story in a way that opens a dialogue," Evans said. "I think they've done that brilliantly."
From kindergarten until Nov. 8 when SOU dropped her from the ceramics class, Schaaf had been included in general education classes with her typically developed peers, Evans said. She earned a modified diploma from AHS last June and wanted to join her classmates in the next step, college, where she wanted to study art and photography.
Stocking said she and her classmates traveled to Oregon three times for the filming. The time they spent together sealed a close friendship between Schaaf and Stocking, the filmmaker said.
Stocking said she thinks SOU's decision to withdraw Schaaf was wrong, but she acknowledges some people might disagree.
"I never thought about inclusion within the disabled population," Stocking said. "It caused me to examine myself and to examine others."
The crew did not include SOU's perspective in the documentary, because they were denied an interview.
Jim Beaver, a SOU spokesman, said he had not seen the documentary and could not comment on it.
"We were approached by some people who wanted to make a documentary," Beaver said. "They asked to speak to the president and gave us some tentative dates, but she was not available. Even if she had been available, she couldn't have said anything" because of federal law that prohibits disclosing information about students without their permission, he said.