Maria Osnowitz worked as a one-on-one teacher’s aide with special needs students at West New York’s Harry L. Bain elementary school until she had to have knee surgery after apparently falling at work in 2006. Rather than helping the problem, the surgery seemed to make matters worse.
“The doctor said if I wanted to go back to work, I’d have to use a motorized scooter,” she said last week.
She returned to work shortly, but was transferred to the town’s middle school, she said, because the school was better suited to accommodate her mobility needs.
It turned out the middle school did not better accommodate her needs. She said that after a series of incidents related to her disability, she filed a formal complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights in February 2009.
“I don’t think people realize the trauma of losing a job you love so much, especially when you have done nothing wrong.” – Maria Osnowitz
“I didn’t file a complaint to be nasty,” she said. “To let somebody go because you filed a complaint for not complying with disability requirement is the most horrible thing you can do. I was totally powerless no matter what I tried.”
On Tuesday, the Division on Civil Rights announced that the board will be required to pay Osnowitz $83,000 to resolve the lawsuit that began just over three years ago. They will have to pay $7,000 to the state, according to a press release from the state Attorney General’s office.
The lawsuit alleged that the board failed to accommodate Osnowitz’s disability, and allegedly declined to renew her contract in retaliation for her complaint. The allegations came under a prior Board of Education and administration.
“[In settling,] we acted in the best interest of the taxpayers of the school district,” Schools Superintendent John Fauta told the Reporter Tuesday. “It was economically sound for us to settle this case.”
“It’s not about the money,” Osnowitz said. “I really hope they learn from what they did.”
The first incident
“One day I was sitting behind a computer doing my work at school when I looked to my right and saw a bike flying toward me,” Osnowitz recalled. “I ducked, and fortunately it went over my head. I filed a memo, which is what we’re supposed to do when something happens like that, and quite honestly, the child’s behavior frightened me.”
A bit shaken, Osnowitz filled out a memo to the administration detailing what happened and included the student’s name.
The next day, she said, the then director of special services allegedly reprimanded Osnowitz for using the student’s full name instead of their initials or the student’s identification number.
“I was not privy to the student’s number because I was a teacher’s aide,” Osnowitz explained.
When the director then asked her to come into an administrative meeting to discuss the matter further, “The meeting was inaccessible by scooter. [The director] was very vindictive,” she said.
A few weeks later, she was required to go to the high school to attend professional development courses she was required to take. At the time, Osnowitz’s scooter had a broken axel and she was unable to remove it from the middle school, she said.
The director, Osnowitz said, allegedly insisted she come to the high school anyway and said there would be a wheelchair ready for her.
“The wheelchair was for a high school child, and clearly too small for me,” she explained. “I had to use two canes to get into the auditorium to sign in. I was upset and nervous and I slipped and fell.”
She went to the nearest classroom to pull herself together, she said, at which point the director allegedly called her husband (who works in the district) demanding to know his wife’s whereabouts. When Osnowitz’s husband arrived to help his wife, the director allegedly told him to take her home, she said.
The incident was allegedly written up and put into Osnowitz’s file.
Behind the lawsuit
Osnowitz said that another day, an identification card that allowed her to access the school’s automatic handicap door stopped working. The school allegedly did nothing to resolve the issue after she brought it to their attention.
“During fire drills, they’d forget about me in the parking lot,” Osnowitz recalled. “I couldn’t get back in because the door wouldn’t open, so I’d have to call the teacher I was working with to come and get me.”
She said she had also requested a handicap parking space and was denied. Osnowitz alleged that the director and various other non-disabled employees occupied the available spaces.
After her termination and the start of her lawsuit, she lived off her husband’s full time wages and the money they received when they sold a property they owned by the shore, she said. Around a year ago she was finally able to obtain Social Security Disability, but being forced to make ends meet was only one of her losses, she explained.
“I don’t think people realize the trauma of losing a job you love so much, especially when you have done nothing wrong,” Osnowitz said. “If I hadn’t been doing my job, okay, but I was. There is a special connection even teacher’s aides have, especially with students with disabilities. I taught them to read, I saw them progress, and I never got to see them graduate.”
What happens now
Osnowitz continues to look for work as a teacher’s aide.
“This settlement resolves troubling allegations concerning the treatment of a disabled employee,” Division on Civil Rights Director Craig Sashihara said in the press release. “[It] will result in greater awareness and more discussion – particularly among people in decision-making roles – about a school district’s obligations under law.”
As part of the settlement, the school board will arrange anti-discrimination training in the next six months for all management staff that focuses on state and federal anti-discrimination laws and policies in the work place.
The school district makes no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement, said the release.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org