I caught up with Lincoln High School Principal Mel Collins about access for the disabled at the school — a relatively new, multi-tiered campus with a single elevator to link the main and lower levels for the disabled.

The problem? The elevator is in the gym. The gym is usually locked. And not every staffer has a key, according to a federal complaint filed earlier this year by Down Syndrome Association of San Diego Vice President Jackie Husson.

Access for students and employees with disabilities has been an ongoing problem for San Diego Unified, which is pledging $230 million to make high schools more accessible under its upcoming bond measure, Proposition S. But the problem is even bigger. Making all schools completely accessible would cost an estimated $800 million.

Most of the inaccessible schools are older facilities, some of which were built before the most current guidelines on wheelchair access. Lincoln’s problems have drawn unique attention because it is a new building that opened just a year ago, yet no ramp connects the lower and main levels.

“There is NO reason that access wasn’t planned — except that segregation is the acceptable norm for students with disabilities,” wrote Cyndi Jones, director of the Center for an Accessible Society in an e-mail. “… We already paid for Lincoln to be built in compliance the first time.”

Collins said he had given out some keys to staffers, but was reluctant “to give any and all a key” because the door has been left unlocked on occasion. And when that door is unlocked, teens can get into the elevator.

“In dark, secluded places,” he said, “kids do bad things.”

The principal said he would be giving out more keys, but he argued that the gym was already accessible because physical education staffers come and go from the building frequently.

Husson’s complaint cited a safety risk when staffers take students in wheelchairs all the way around the school, actually exiting the campus to reach the lower level. While Husson does not have a child at the school currently, she is the former chair of a legally mandated committee on disability issues in San Diego Unified, and said she has repeatedly heard about the social costs of the problem.

“Many of the kids who have special education classrooms on the lower level were not being included for lunch activities because it was such a major undertaking to get them from the lower level to the main campus,” she said.

EMILY ALPERT

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