13-Year-Old Prodigy Cries Discrimination After University Denied Him Ecology Class

Colin CarlsonCourtesy Carlson Family
Colin Carlson believes the University of Connecticut is discriminating against him because of his age.

He may be young but Colin Carlson said he is no stranger to discrimination.

Carlson, a gifted child, was at age 12 turned away from his dream school, Connecticut College, amid concerns that he was too young for a dormitory, even though he agreed to live off campus with his mother.

Now, more than a year later, 13-year-old Carlson said he has faced trouble again at the University of Connecticut, where he maintains a 3.9 GPA as a double-degree candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology, and in environmental studies.

The university barred his entry into an African field ecology class that required a three-week trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, because the professor thought Carlson was too young for the journey, Carlson and his mother, Jessica Offir, said.

Offir had intended to accompany her son on the trip at her own expense to make "the university more comfortable," she said.

Denying her son enrollment in the class was a violation of state and federal law and of the university's own anti-discrimination policy, Offir said.

"To base your opinion of a person on his age is no different than to base it on their sex, religion, race or group membership," she said.

University of Connecticut spokesman Michael Kirk declined to be interviewed but said in a written statement, "The university doesn't comment on pending claims or litigation. Speaking generally, when it comes to study-abroad programs, student safety is our first concern."

The trouble began in November when Carlson was not admitted to a class that he said had been promised to him prior to his admission to UConn, said Offir, who has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

"He applied for the course that he had his eye on before he matriculated and that we'd mentioned by name to the administrators as something he wanted to do," Offir said.

Gifted Child Colin Carlson Wants to go to South Africa

But when Carlson did not hear back from the professor, despite what Offir referred to as the professor's publicized plea that he had room for more students, they began to wonder what went wrong.

Carlson was called in for a meeting with Denielle Burl, the university's director of risk management, who told them that the professor teaching the class did not want a 13 year old taking the course, Offir said.

"She [Burl] expressed to him [Carlson] that [his case] had landed on her desk when [the professor] was told by the Office of Study Abroad that one of the kids on his class list was 13 and he didn't want a student who was 13," she said.

"She [Burl] said, 'Can I dissuade you,' and, 'Is there anything else you can take,' and Colin kept saying 'No, no no,'" said Offir.

Messages left for the professor of the course were not immediately returned and Burl directed ABCNews.com directly to the university's spokesman.

Officially, Carlson is a sophomore but already is a senior based on credits. He plans to graduate in the spring of 2012.

Offir and Carlson say this is the first negative experience they've had at UConn and that they want the university to correct its mistake and allow Carlson to study in the same capacity as other students, regardless of his age.

"People treat me like they would any other student and I'm really happy at UConn," Carlson said. "So it was really kind of a shock when this all came down because this is the first negative encounter I've had.

"If you think about the two degrees I'm doing, I have to see how communities react to the environment," he said. "And in order to do that, traveling is really, really important and the one thing that made this particular class so appealing is that it will be in a country that has certain civil issues and I would be able to study how conservation plays in to it."

Since not being admitted into his first choice class, Carlson has enrolled in a class taught by Carl Schlichting that also has a travel component to South Africa, albeit Cape Town.

While Schlichting is so far happy to have Carlson in his class, Carlson and his mother worry that their complaint about discrimination might result in retaliation by the university and might get Carlson kicked out of his class.

Mother Goes Public to Help Others, Too

Carlson is also concerned about fulfilling his degree requirements because Schlichting's class does not meet the same requirements as the original class.

Offir said she hopes that by going public with her son's problems as a prodigy child at a large university, she might help other children going through the same thing.

"Colin is not the only one of his kind, these kids suffer," Offir said. "We call them prodigies because they're one in a million but there are really many more like him.

"We don't want other kids to go through what Colin has had to go through," Offir said. "People like him can very happily navigate through college as long as people don't try to throw obstacles in their path."

The National Association for Gifted Children estimated that there are about 3 million academically gifted children in grades K-12 in the United States, about 6 percent of the student population. There's no similar information available for college students.

The association's executive director, Nancy Green, speaking generally about universities nationwide, said that because of the lack of precedent in accommodating gifted students, many academic institutions still use a lot of caution when dealing with cases like Carlson's.

"Some of these kids, while they're not adults yet, are ready for a higher level of challenge and we can't just ignore that because it is inconvenient," Green said.

"These kids need a challenging curriculum that really isn't aged-base."