Monday, December 29, 2008

Visually impaired teacher sues school district for discrimination

To understand how Lukas Barfield sees the world, imagine staring through a toilet-paper roll with wax paper over the other end. Barfield suffers from rod-cone dystrophy, a condition that causes a very narrow field of vision—even objects right in front of him are hard to make out.

But Barfield didn't let his condition stop him from getting a teaching certificate with an emphasis in math from the University of Washington and a teaching job in the Kent School District. After the 2006–2007 school year—his first—Barfield received a satisfactory evaluation, but at the end of the following term, the district fired him. Last month he sued the district for discrimination.

At the start of the 2007–2008 school year, Barfield started answering to a new vice principal, Anthony Brown. "Almost immediately, Mr. Brown began to discriminate," Barfield's suit against the district states.

Barfield's attorney, Tyler Firkins, says Mill Creek isn't an easy school to begin with, even for sighted teachers. "We're not talking about [advanced placement] students at Mercer Island or something like that," Firkins says. "This is a pretty challenging group that he had." The fourth-period kids were a particular problem, passing notes, throwing things, and not getting out textbooks when asked. So in the fall of 2007, Barfield says he asked Brown for help, claiming students took advantage of his sight problems. According to the suit, Brown offered no assistance and told Barfield he needed to be "the heavy."

After a parent complained later that fall that disruptive students in that class made it harder for others to learn, Barfield reminded Brown that he had asked for assistance. According to the lawsuit, Brown began coming into Barfield's class unannounced, sitting outside the teacher's field of vision. Barfield claims he didn't know Brown was in the room; once, Barfield says, he nearly sat on Brown. After the surreptitious observations, Brown criticized him for things like not seeing students raising their hands or passing notes, Barfield says.

In January of this year, Barfield asked for a para-educator—a specialized teaching assistant—to help him manage his class. Brown allegedly replied by saying the district wasn't obligated to provide one. Barfield then asked for a meeting with the Kent Education Association and the state Department of Services for the Blind. The district subsequently agreed to hire someone to assist Barfield in the classroom. But even then, Barfield says, Brown only allowed the assistant to do little more than point out disruptive kids. Instead of providing Barfield with the help he needed, Filkins says the assistant "became a classroom narc."

At the end of the year, the district notified Barfield that his contract would not be renewed. He appealed to the Kent School Board and filed for a restraining order against the district to stop the firing. Both of these maneuvers proved unsuccessful.

Firkins says other districts have been far more accommodating to teachers with disabilities than Kent. He believes administrators preferred to force Barfield out rather than make it easier for him to teach. Meanwhile, the district filed a general response in court Nov. 25, denying any wrongdoing without going into specifics.

Kent School District spokesperson Becky Hanks says she can't comment directly on Barfield's case, but adds that the district has successfully made accommodations for other teachers with sensory disabilities, though she wouldn't go into specifics.

"Kent School District does not discriminate on disability. If an employee does not have a contract renewed, the issue is job performance," says Hanks.

Firkins acknowledges the district wrote his client up several times for issues related to students' behavioral problems. But those are instances, he says, where a sighted teacher wouldn't have had the same problems. Perhaps the most damning claim in Barfield's suit is the allegation that Brown not only cited him unfairly, but repeatedly noted that Barfield's problem was his inability to see all that went on. According to the complaint, Barfield had to remind the vice principal that he was visually impaired.


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