photo courtesy the Allen-Lewis family
Zoe Allen-Lewis hopes to attend VCU this fall.
The elation of making it into her dream school soon turned sour for Zoe Allen-Lewis, a senior at George Mason High School in Falls Church whose story has drawn thousands of online supporters to her defense.
Allen-Lewis was one of two students accepted this spring into a VCU certificate program for young adults with intellectual disabilities. “She was convinced that it was a done deal,” says Dan Fitzgerald, her stepfather.
However, university officials told her family that Allen-Lewis would not be eligible to live in the dorms. The college’s on-campus housing is reserved for degree-seeking students, and participants in the program Allen-Lewis got into aren’t considered degree-seeking. The decision could prevent her from attending in the fall, because her family lives two hours away and she cannot commute. Her family believes that she needs to be in a dorm setting rather than an off-campus apartment because of the community support it would provide.
Earlier this week, her high school classmates launched a Change.org petition that now has more than 6,000 signatures. It implores university officials to change the policy so Allen-Lewis can attend. The petition names president Michael Rao and Curtis Erwin, the university’s executive director of residential life and housing.
“She’s a normal high school senior,” says Daniel Donovan, a friend who helped start the petition and circulate it. The petition notes that Allen-Lewis "was elected homecoming queen, attends every sporting event, and is revered as a bright student who is ambitious to learn despite her disability."
“Getting into your dream school one month and then finding out you couldn’t go a month later, that would be crushing for anybody,” Donovan says.
Donovan and Sam Selby, another senior at George Mason High, used Facebook and Twitter to get the word out to their graduating class of 180. School-wide support followed. Students at other schools throughout Northern Virginia shared the petition online and tweeted using the hashtag #LetZoeGo. The outpouring of support caught the university’s attention.
Contacted for a comment on Allen-Lewis’ situation, VCU spokesman Michael Porter pointed to a statement posted on VCU’s Facebook page explaining that its housing policy bars non-degree seeking students from living on campus. An exception to that policy is made for international students, faculty or visiting scholars, according to the statement.
“VCU is committed to supporting and responding to the needs of students with disabilities,” the statement reads. “The university has and continues to provide reasonable accommodations to many students with disabilities enrolled in degree-granting programs at VCU and who wish to live in on-campus housing.”
The university launched the ACE-IT program in August 2011, using a five-year $2 million federal grant it received in 2010. The program is meant to provide “an inclusive college experience for students with intellectual disabilities.” Participants attend classes with the student body and are offered internship opportunities based on their career interests, according to the program’s website.
ACE-IT students pay the same tuition per credit hour as other students, but do not receive grades. Students in the 21-credit program, stretched over five semesters, earn a certificate upon completion.
In its statement, the university says the program does not cover housing. “Students enrolling in this non-degree program and their parents are aware that on-campus housing is not apart of ACE-IT,” the statement reads.
In 2011, a similar case in Michigan resulted in a student who was originally barred from on-campus housing at Oakland University winning a lawsuit.
The Virginia branch of the ACLU, as well as the National ACLU, have approached the family about the situation. Fitzgerald says they haven’t decided whether to take legal action yet, but they are looking at programs at other schools.
“It would be a perfect fit if she could be on campus surrounded by a lot of other people providing natural supports,” Fitzgerald says. “But I don’t know if we want to sue our way into that.”