Click photo to enlarge
CORINNE MORIER, 16, (right) watches classmates perform skits during drama class at Holy Names High School in Oakland.
OAKLAND

CORINNE MORIER sat cross-legged onstage at Holy Names High School. She leaned forward as her teacher spoke, as if afraid of missing a single word.

"Woo-hoo!" she exclaimed, pumping her fists in the air, when the drama instructor mentioned an upcoming exercise. "Yeah!" she said, moments later.

The other students laughed, and so did Corinne.

"She's just so excited and it's infectious," said her advanced drama teacher, Christy Arington. "It's important to me that drama class is a place you can relax, you can be free to express yourself."

Corinne, 16, usually can't help but express herself. The aspiring movie director and honors student has Asperger syndrome, a neurological disorder in the autism spectrum that affects her social skills, organization and communication.

While most people pick up on social nuances without even realizing it, Corinne must be explicitly taught and reminded of tacit interpersonal rules: Not to announce her score on a test, for example, or interrupt someone who is speaking.

"If you weren't told, you'd think Corinne was sort of an odd, eccentric, weird kid," said her mother, Susan Bergmann, who is a child psychologist. "And drama attracts them."

Corinne and her family say it's because of those differences she is pursuing her passion for theater at a private school, rather than in the public school system she attended for 10 years. The 10th-grader left Skyline High School, a 2,200-student school in the Oakland hills, after it became clear she would not be permitted to enroll in its prized advanced drama class, for which students audition.

"It was the very first time I had been discriminated against because of my disability," Corinne said. "It's not our fault we have disabilities," she said. "We were born with it. We couldn't help it."

The clash between Skyline's drama director, Jan Hunter, and Corinne's parents, prominent special education advocates, resulted in a legal complaint and an ongoing district investigation into the alleged discrimination. Hunter said this week she might sue the family for defamation.

Various interpretations of the contentious affair, and of the aggressive advocacy efforts of Corinne's family, have since circulated the campus, whose strong Asperger program has drawn students from across the city.

Hunter and some of her supporters characterize the conflict as a personal crusade by two parents against a hard-working teacher who is struggling to do her job with few resources. Others say the passion with which Corinne's parents pursued the issue illustrates the lengths to which special needs families must sometimes go to make sure their kids have the same opportunities as their able-bodied peers.

But many agree the ordeal highlighted the need to better educate and support mainstream teachers, many of whom receive little formal special education training. As a result, Skyline will soon host sessions with a local nonprofit organization to promote a deeper understanding of what it means to go through life with a disability.

"It definitely shed some light on the situation," said Heidi Green, Skyline's principal, who adamantly disputes that discrimination occurred. "Some of the teachers are really struggling to help special needs students."

New dynamic

Skyline is one of the few Oakland high schools with a drama program. Its 12-year-old performing arts academy has graduated the likes of LaToya London, an American Idol semifinalist, and others who have landed jobs in the "Lion King" production or the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hunter said. Tom Hanks, an alumnus, donated money to restore Skyline's theater.

Hunter's small group of advanced drama students — 14 this year — star in the school plays, take trips to Disneyland and hone their skills in partnerships with local theater companies. It's an intensive course, which often requires that students work together outside the school day.

Everyone who auditioned this spring was accepted, Hunter said.

"If the talent is there, I'll take all of them," she said.

As a ninth-grader, Corinne received A's in beginning drama and had a small role in Hamlet (Grave-digger II). She dreamed of being a part of advanced drama, and because of her grades she assumed it would happen. It didn't.

Corinne missed the audition. She said she didn't know it was required for the class until after it had passed. But that wasn't the only problem. In Hunter's opinion, Corinne lacked the necessary skills.

In an interview, Hunter said the advanced drama class is a group of her most trusted students, who often spend long hours with one another, often without adult supervision.

"One of the things that's important in an advanced drama class is that the kids need to socialize," she said.

Hunter said Corinne's participation in the Hamlet production made the production difficult for her and the other students.

"If a student got onstage and they were doing a monologue, Corinne would holler at them and correct them," Hunter said. "Corinne has memorizing skills, but there's far more to being in advanced drama than memorization. It's working with others, following directions."

After the Hamlet production, Hunter said, "I learned what my limitations were, and I learned what her limitations were, and it would not have worked."

But Corinne's advanced drama classmates at Holy Names, a girls Catholic school in Oakland, seem to have embraced her differences. They say her presence has made the class more interesting and dynamic.

"She expresses herself in ways many people don't because they're afraid to," said Amanda Harrison, 17, who is also the student body president.

Before Corinne's arrival, the group was fairly tense, focused on showing off their dramatic talents, said Anna DiGiovanni, 17. Now, she said, the dynamics of the class are looser and more creative.

"She's sincere, so it rubs off on us," she said. "We don't have to be fake."

Skyline creates new course

Bergmann argues Hunter's reasons for excluding Corrine from the class are the very characteristics of her daughter's disability — and therefore a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She wants the high school to open advanced drama to everyone.

"This is not Juilliard. This is high school," Bergmann said.

While Green did not agree with Bergmann's proposal, she and Hunter created a "beginning/intermediate" section, in which they placed Corinne and Kenton Barks, another student in Skyline's Asperger Program.

An e-mail to Bergmann from Dennis Nelson, who oversees special education services at the high school, was upbeat about the development.

"This is a tremendous upgrade in Skyline's teaching of dramatic technique that is directly attributable to your advocacy on behalf of your daughter," he wrote.

Bergmann didn't share his sense of victory. Two days after school began, she transferred Corinne to Holy Names.

Don Barks, Kenton's father, said he didn't have a problem with the beginning and intermediate course — that is, until he realized the curriculum was identical to the course his son had already taken.

One day, he said, Kenton came home with the same Shakespeare sonnet he had been given the year before.

"Kenton in no way needs to repeat course material," Barks said. "It's an incredible level of disrespect for him, as a student and as a human being."

Barks said Hunter has since agreed to adjust the lessons for the intermediate students.

Michael Krezmien, a special education professor at the University of Texas who specializes in matters of equity and access, said he was surprised by the story because it involved a student with Asperger syndrome — one of the least noticeable disorders — at a high school with a program specifically designed for Asperger students.

"I've never encountered anything like this," he said.

Most Asperger students at Skyline generally take all but one class — social skills and history — with non-special education students. Aides accompany some of the teenagers to their classes.

Courteny Gumora, the Asperger Program's full inclusion coordinator who found herself in the middle of the dispute, said many of Skyline's mainstream teachers work wonderfully with her students. But it's not easy for everyone, she said.

For those with limited experience with the disabled, Gumora said, "I think it's foreign, it's alienating, it's uncomfortable. It's not something you feel capable of understanding or bringing to your perspective."

Well-respected program

Hunter is a respected, experienced teacher who is beloved in the school's drama circles. She also is credited for keeping the program thriving despite diminishing resources.

Anita Garriott said her son Scott had a difficult time adjusting to high school during his first year.

"Because of the drama department and his encouragement by Ms. Hunter, he has chosen drama as his career," she said.

Garriott said her son's beginning drama class had at least 10 special education students, and from what she could tell, Hunter treated everyone fairly.

Hunter speaks openly of the challenges presented by special needs students, especially when they are assigned to her classes in large numbers. She said she first learned the term "Asperger" last year.

"When the students would scream out in class or be mean to other students or repeat things I said or interrupt, I didn't know it was part of the condition," she said.

Hunter says she is insulted by the accusations of discrimination.

"I've had special ed students in all of my classes," she said. "To be accused of discriminating against one has hurt my heart very deeply."

Gumora, too, said she was crushed and shaken by the way the conflict played out and by how quickly it escalated. Despite her efforts to reach a solution — having an aide accompany Corinne or having Corinne work on her social skills and audition the following year — Hunter didn't budge from her position, she said.

"It still continues to sadden me that such harsh emotions had to come out around a young person wanting to take an advanced drama class," Gumora said.

Still, she said, "I'm not completely convinced that this was a solely discriminatory act."

Brand-new role

Corinne hasn't paid much attention to the dispute about her education. She is too busy adjusting to her new high school, too busy thinking about drama.

"It's fun. It's very interactive," she said, after class.

She paused for a second and turned to some of her classmates, who were still chatting in the auditorium.

"You guys, the bell rang. You can go to lunch," she announced.

Arington said she originally cast Corinne as a firefighter in an upcoming play, "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." But upon further thought, she decided to create a new role for the teenager that would showcase her abilities.

Corinne will be the "crazy church lady" who plays the piano and tries to get everyone to sing along.