Teacher gains $55,000 settlement

City schools scolded for rescinding offer because of guide dog

January 03, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Graduating with an education degree in the spring of 1998, in the midst of widespread teacher shortages, Janet C. Mushington hardly had trouble finding a job. Turning down one offer in Atlanta, she took another in her hometown, at Baltimore's Westside Elementary.

Weeks before the school year started, though, city school officials changed their minds, court records show. The school principal said Mushington, who is blind, could have the job - but only if she left her guide dog, Parke, at home.

The rescinded offer will cost the city schools $55,000, which the system has agreed to pay Mushington to settle a Justice Department lawsuit charging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In a settlement order signed Monday by a federal judge in Baltimore, the schools also agreed to adopt new policies to ensure compliance with the decade-old civil rights law.

Under the agreement, school officials denied any discrimination. But for Mushington, now 27 and an elementary school teacher in Baltimore County, the settlement was an important victory.

In an interview yesterday, Mushington said that until she lost the Westside job offer because of her guide dog, she had always believed she could overcome her disability with hard work.

"In my mind, I always told myself that as long as I did my best and did what I was supposed to do, I would triumph," said Mushington, who lives in Pikesville. "So when this happened, it was more than just I was turned down for a job - it was like my whole world had come crashing down."

Yesterday, school officials referred questions about the case to attorney Brian Williams, who was out of town and unavailable to comment.

Under the settlement order signed by U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson, the schools agreed to designate a coordinator for disability employment issues and to require all employees who make hiring decisions to undergo training about disability issues.

The city schools also agreed to post notices in every school building about the 1990 anti-discrimination law, which requires public and private employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with physical disabilities, such as permitting an employee to use a guide dog.

"The Americans with Disabilities Act is intended to open the doors of employment opportunity to people with disabilities," Ralph F. Boyd Jr., the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement. "When an employer refuses access by a person with a service animal, it closes the door on that opportunity."

Mushington received a bachelor's degree in education from Clark Atlanta University in Georgia in June 1998. She said yesterday that she was initially interested in staying in Atlanta after graduation, and had received a job offer at an elementary school there, when her mother talked her into returning to Baltimore to live near her family.

Mushington said she agreed to move home in part because she felt she had proved her independence by leaving Maryland to attend college, working her way through school despite her blindness and, during her junior year, a broken leg that left her using a wheelchair for several months.

That effort made the loss of the job offer in Baltimore all the more painful, she said.

"It was like, wait a minute," Mushington said. "I went through all this, and I'm still not going to be able to get a job?"

Mushington said she interviewed twice at Westside Elementary during the summer of 1998, each time using a cane to help her navigate. She said it was only when she mentioned that she would be using a guide dog during the school year that officials balked, saying a "no animal" policy prohibited her from bringing a dog to the school.

"The bottom line was, if I wanted the job in that school, I would not be able to have the dog," she said.

Mushington was not breaking new ground. A small number of blind teachers across Maryland take their guide dogs into the classroom, where the teachers manage their classrooms with help from students, classroom aides and Braille texts, according to the National Federation for the Blind and the National Association of Blind Educators.

When city school officials said they could not accommodate Mushington's service animal, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC investigators referred the case to the Justice Department's civil rights division.

While her case progressed, Mushington went to work. Substitute teaching jobs and a student helper position in the Baltimore County schools led to a full-time position teaching second- and third-graders at Chatsworth School in Reisterstown, where guide dog Parke joins Mushington every day.

"It's wonderful," Mushington said. "She comes in, and she goes to sleep. She stays under the desk and sleeps until I tell her to come out and go somewhere."

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