West Middlesex Area School District and Slippery Rock University have asked a federal judge to rule against a Butler County woman, who claims they discriminated against her because of a disability.

Stephanie A. Wetzel, who was known as Stephanie Burns at the time in question, the spring of 2005, has asked U.S. District Court Judge Donetta W. Ambrose in Pittsburgh not to grant summary judgment to the schools, and to let the case proceed toward trial.

Ms. Wetzel, of Boyers, said she has genetic hearing loss, which has affected her speech. She claimed that she was told she was not allowed to complete a field experience at West Middlesex because the supervising teacher did not want her because of her disability. She claimed the university refused to assign her to another field assignment, and removed her from the teacher certification program.

She graduated from Slippery Rock in December 2005 with a degree in early childhood development and learning, but did not receive a teaching certification.

In a request for summary judgment, the judge is asked to rule based on the available information and applicable law. Those who ask for summary judgment claim that there are no issues of fact that would best be left to a jury to determine.

Ms. Wetzel was assigned to a field experience with Georgiana Luce, a fourth-grade English teacher at Oakview Elementary School, West Middlesex.

Ms. Luce has since left the district.

A field experience is a precursor to student teaching. In the normal course of field experiences, the teaching student attends the class one day a week for three weeks, and then every day for three weeks.

Ms. Luce, who had more than 30 years with the district at the time, and Ms. Wetzel, now 24, differed in their remembrances of when Ms. Wetzel sat in on Ms. Luce’s class. Ms. Wetzel said it was March 30 and April 5, both in 2005, during the once-a-week preliminary time. Ms. Luce, 56, of Shenango Township, recalled Ms. Wetzel attending for three days in a row, and that Ms. Luce did not attend the sessions prior to the all-week sessions.

“In my 33 years, I had never experienced or I had never seen anyone that was as unprepared as she was,” Ms. Luce said last July in a deposition.

Ms. Wetzel used incorrect grammar, such as the phrase “Don’t got none” and the word “ain’t,” in front of the students, Ms. Luce said.

“I was the fourth-grade English teacher and very concerned about how she was using words and speaking,” Ms. Luce said.

Ms. Luce stressed it was not Ms. Wetzel’s ability to articulate words that she was concerned about.

“To my knowledge, there was no disability,” Ms. Luce said.

Ms. Wetzel’s dress was unprofessional, Ms. Luce said. One day, Ms. Wetzel wore a T-shirt cut too low, and another day she wore a blouse with an unraveling hem, Ms. Luce said. Ms. Wetzel’s clothes were not pressed, and she had mud stains on her slacks and shoes, Ms. Luce said.

Despite Ms. Luce’s encouragement to interact with the students, Ms. Wetzel never did, other than when she joined in a sharing session to tell students a little about herself, Ms. Luce said.

Ms. Wetzel’s sharing session also ran afoul of Ms. Luce. Ms. Wetzel told the children she had a baby and planned to marry her boyfriend in the fall, Ms. Luce said.

Ms. Luce estimated that 80 percent of her students come from two-parent homes and she thought it inappropriate for some one in a role modeling position to describe a dissimilar lifestyle.

Ms. Luce added that some of her students have talked about their parents not being married, or a parent intending to marry someone else during sharing sessions, and that she was not making a moral judgment of Ms. Wetzel’s lifestyle.

Ms. Luce criticized Ms. Wetzel’s hygiene, saying her hair was uncombed and she had body odor.

Ms. Luce said she expressed her concerns with former principal Dennis Messett, and then, at his suggestion, called Slippery Rock. She did not remember who she talked to at the university, but expected that someone from the university would work with her and Ms. Wetzel, or Ms. Wetzel would be placed in another school.

Ms. Luce said she did not tell the university official that she did not want Ms. Wetzel to return to her classroom, a statement contradicted by university officials.

Ms. Wetzel said Dr. Robert Snyder, the university’s field coordinator, told her “Mrs. Luce had called and told him that I was no longer welcome.”

Ms. Luce said she never expressed any of her concerns to Ms. Wetzel.

“I thought they should have been addressed before she arrived in my classroom,” Ms. Wetzel said. “I think it was Slippery Rock’s responsibility to have noticed that this girl was not prepared for field experience for a lot of different reasons.”

Ms. Wetzel’s account of what happened differed in many respects from Ms. Luce’s. Ms. Wetzel, who paid no tuition to Slippery Rock because her father works for the university, never talked about having trouble hearing, Ms. Luce said. Ms. Wetzel said she told Ms. Luce that the desk Ms. Luce had for her was on Ms. Wetzel’s “bad side, the side I had a hard time hearing out of, so that I might have a harder time hearing her.”

Ms. Wetzel said she walked around the room during class time, observed students at recess, escorted students to lunch and the gym, and took students to the library to do reading assessments. Ms. Luce did not recall Ms. Wetzel doing any of these things.

Snyder stressed that Ms. Luce’s main concern was Ms. Wetzel’s speech and inability to pronounce words and sounds.

In their plan to help Ms. Wetzel, university officials also stressed her speech, she said.

“They would not place me in a new field assignment until I could assure them that there would be no further issue with my speech,” Ms. Wetzel said.

Ms. Wetzel said she started talking to lawyers “Because I felt that there was something wrong with going through the teaching track and then being told at the last minute you can’t be a teacher based on your speech ... which I had no control over. I tried correcting it over the years and could not.”

Although Snyder claimed not to have known about her hearing and speech problems until after the lawsuit was filed, Slippery Rock was aware of it through her high school records, she said. She also made it “a rule” to tell her professors that she had trouble hearing and that she likely would ask them to repeat something.

Ms. Wetzel acknowledged the reasons stated by Ms. Luce — except for the alleged inappropriate dress — were expressed to her by Slippery Rock officials, but disagreed that any of them occurred.

“I was pulled out for one of the five reasons,” she said, her speech.

Douglas L. DeMartino, Pittsburgh, the school district’s attorney, said no school officials knew Ms. Wetzel had any purported disability until she filed suit.

Ms. Wetzel has not shown that she is disabled within the definition of the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act, DeMartino said. She has acknowledged that her hearing and speech do not prevent her from effectively communicating with others, and has not shown that any purported disability has impaired a major life activity, he said.

Robert A. Willig, deputy state attorney general representing the university, said only one of Ms. Wetzel’s professors knew of her hearing problem. Ms. Wetzel’s speech impediment was widely known, and university staff tried to work with her improve it, Willig said. They did not regard it as a disability, but a detriment to her being hired, he said.

“SRU did not believe that Plaintiff could never be an elementary school teacher,” Willig said. “That is why a remedial plan was put in place to help her succeed.”

University officials referred Ms. Wetzel to the Office of Student Disabilities “not because they thought Plaintiff was disabled, but rather, so that Plaintiff would have every available resource at her disposal to be successful,” Willig said.

In arguing that there are facts that should be resolved by a jury, Ms. Wetzel’s attorney, Jana H. Finder, Pittsburgh, said Ms. Luce testified about conversations with Messett that he said did not take place. She also pointed out what she said were inconsistencies in statements by West Middlesex and Slippery Rock officials concerning the reasons Ms. Wetzel was removed from the field experience.

Concerning the central claim of disability discrimination, Ms. Finder pointed to Snyder’s claim that Ms. Luce asked that Ms. Wetzel be removed because she could not speak properly. This action shows knowledge of a speech impediment, Ms. Finder said.

The university’s field experience handbook lists the ability to speak as an essential requirement of the program, and which violates the Rehabilitation Act because it is used to screen out people with speech disabilities, Ms. Finder said.

“The mere fact SR required Burns to prove she had eliminated her speech problem to remain in the certified program is glaring evidence that it excluded her from the program solely because of her disability,” Ms. Finder said.

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