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No Joke : Education: Newbury Park High School gets a special lesson on disabilities before handicapped students arrive at the campus.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The stand-up comedian speaking to students at Thousand Oaks’ Newbury Park High School Tuesday had a wicked wit and a sarcasm-tinged view of the world that left the student body roaring with laughter.

Never mind that Geri Jewell has cerebral palsy. As she addressed the 1,400 students assembled in the school gym about accepting people with disabilities--including more than 30 disabled students from the county-run Dean Triggs School who will move to the campus in November--one thing was clear.

Jewell was funny, even when joking about her own disability and how others perceive it.

“I have cerebral palsy, or let’s call it CP for short--it’s easier to spell,” said Jewell, 34, who was born with the nervous disorder. “Don’t confuse it with MD, VD, AT&T; or PMS . . . Having CP is like having cable television without paying for it. You get the picture but it’s all scrambled.”

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Behind Jewell’s jokes, there was a serious purpose.

Tuesday marked the first encounter between Newbury Park students and Triggs students, who will move four miles from a site near the Thousand Oaks Public Library to portable classrooms on the Newbury Park campus.

The move was ordered by state education officials in 1988 after inspectors found that Triggs students were isolated, in violation of a federal law that requires handicapped students to be integrated into regular campuses and given an opportunity to interact with non-handicapped students.

All of Triggs’ 65 students, ranging from 3 to 22 years old, are being relocated. In addition to the high school transfer, about 35 younger students will be moved to Conejo Elementary School next spring, Triggs Principal Barbara Sorenson said.

The Triggs students have a variety of disabilities including medical problems, retardation, deafness and blindness, said Diana Novak, director of special education for the county superintendent of schools office.

Novak said state inspectors review special education facilities every three years and will return to look at Ventura County campuses, including the new Triggs site, next spring. The other 10 county-run special schools are near regular campuses and in compliance with federal law, she said.

Once the Triggs students are moved, the county will return the present eight-room Triggs school to the Conejo Valley district from which it is leased, Novak said.

Under integration, Triggs students will share lunch periods, breaks, assemblies and other activities as their abilities allow, Novak said. Their classroom program, however, will remain separate.

To ensure a smooth transition for both groups of students, officials from the county schools office and the Conejo Valley Unified School District asked Jewell to address all the students about sensitivity to each other.

Jewell, also an actress best known for her appearances on the television series “Facts of Life,” made light of cerebral palsy in an attempt to urge the students to see beyond such differences.

“CP has never been my problem in life,” Jewell said. “My problem is the perception of CP. People think I’m on drugs all the time . . . I am perceived in so many ways as I walk through life. It teaches me not to be so quick to judge people.”

Jewell cautioned that bringing the Triggs students to the campus is only a first step toward integrating them into campus life.

“They can have all the opportunity in the world, but if they aren’t accepted, all that training doesn’t work,” Jewell said. “I’m not saying you have to like all disabled students, because that’s not reality.” Instead, she urged students to try to be as open and friendly to their new classmates as they would to any other student, especially in social situations.

“We have to allow ourselves to look at people, and not their disabilities,” Jewell said.

Officials said they hope Tuesday’s program will make a difference.

“At high school age, kids tend to have these little prejudices,” said Stephen I. Gordon, special education coordinator for the Conejo Valley Unified School District. The program “initiates students to the concept that kids who are handicapped aren’t different.”

For parents of Triggs students, one of the biggest questions is whether the new facilities will be as good as the old, said Triggs PTA President Desley Boardman.

“It will be interesting to see how it all happens and how much integration actually takes place,” Boardman said. “I believe in integration. I think it’s a wonderful thing, but I also hate to give up something we know works.”

Parents are concerned because the new classrooms are smaller and bathrooms will be down the hall rather than between classrooms, making them less accessible, Boardman said.

After Jewell’s presentation, Newbury Park students gave the Triggs students single, long-stemmed roses and cards emblazoned with the school’s Panther mascot that read: “Welcome to Newbury High School from your new friends.”

Some said they are ready to make room for the students on their campus.

“I think it’s a good idea that they be a part of our school,” said ninth-grade student Justin Lees-Smith, 14.


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