23 05 2008

Blind principal files discrimination suit

By Matthew Bruun

May 22, 2008

Worcester Telegram & Gazette

http://www.telegram.com/article/20080522/NEWS/805220762/1116

Fitchburg— The principal of South Street Elementary School has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination against the school district, saying he has been harassed, subject to unequal terms and conditions, denied reasonable accommodation and subject to retaliation for opposing what he said were discriminatory practices.

William Terrill is legally blind. His complaint, which singles out Superintendent Andre R. Ravenelle, was filed last month in Boston.

Mr. Terrill, 56, has worked for the city’s school system since 1987, including 19 years as principal of South Street Elementary School. His legal blindness results from the degenerative disorder retinitis pigmentosa. 

“It was very painful to file this suit against the district because I’m not that kind of person,” Mr. Terrill said yesterday. He said he remains proud of the teachers and staff at his school, but he felt compelled to take this action because of his treatment by the administration.

The complaint is under investigation by the commission.

Mr. Ravenelle said late yesterday he was limited in what he could say because it was a personnel matter, but denied Mr. Terrill’s allegations.

He said he had been working with Mr. Terrill for more than a year to find appropriate accommodations, using the expertise of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. He said technology also had been used to help Mr. Terrill.

“I will continue to do that,” the superintendent said. “I’m a collaborator and I try to work with everyone. I will continue to do so.”

A formal response to Mr. Terrill’s complaint is being drafted, the superintendent said yesterday.

The principal’s complaint, filed April 9, says his problems began with the arrival of Mr. Ravenelle.

“Until Superintendent Ravenelle came on board, I never felt the need to request accommodations,” he wrote. “The prior superintendents, Phil Fallon and Tom Lamey, never singled me out or made me ask for assistance in regards to my disability. These superintendents were aware of my disability and were supportive without making it obtrusive into my privacy or drawing unnecessary attention. I felt that I was held up to high standards in a humane and supportive way.”

His complaint says he has been reprimanded by the superintendent “for wasting his time by forcing him to write lengthy memos to me and for the need to spend so much time dealing with me,” Mr. Terrill wrote, adding he fears his health is suffering because of the pressure and stress of the situation.

The complaint states that when Mr. Terrill’s former vice principal, who “had been a major assistance to myself,” left in August 2006, Mr. Terrill asked Mr. Ravenelle that the position be filled by a person of similar strengths and skills. A search committee was formed and its members selected someone Mr. Terrill had worked with before “who would be a significant help,” he said.

“It is known by Superintendent Ravenelle that I have a visual disability and we felt that this candidate would be of particular assistance to me,” he wrote. Other principals had been allowed to select their vice principals, he said, but Mr. Ravenelle refused the search committee’s recommendation and ordered another search.

There was no vice principal for the 2006-2007 school year, Mr. Terrill said, and the duties were filled by a retired guidance counselor.

“Although she was a very loyal and competent guidance counselor, she was not of the caliber and experience of the preferred candidate,” Mr. Terrill wrote.

The principal said he made a formal request for special help in November 2006 and asked to meet with Mr. Ravenelle to discuss the matter but was repeatedly denied direct meetings, unlike other principals.

He said he has not been provided a confidential aide as he requested in writing that month, and thought he was being stalled by the superintendent.

Mr. Terrill also wrote that the superintendent failed to direct correspondence to him via e-mail and did not provide agendas for administrative and other meetings in advance, though he had previously agreed to do so.

He said he requested a reader to assist him at a meeting in spring 2007, when administrators were summoned to discuss staffing for the coming school year and a “highly-sensitive document” was handed out. He was pulled out of the meeting and told no reader was available and was promised a readable form of the document would be presented to him the next morning, but it did not arrive that day, he said.

In April 2007, Mr. Terrill wrote, the superintendent agreed to transmit electronic versions of action notes and minutes directly following administrative meetings.

“This also never happened,” he said, adding the notes would come one week to two weeks after the meeting, and never in electronic format.

“Since the time I began to formally request accommodations in November 2006, I have been bombarded with lengthy written material from the superintendent requesting information, investigations of matters, explanations of actions that I have taken and reprimands for these actions,” he wrote. “This barrage escalates when I request help or assistance. The length of written materials I receive requires lengthy written response from me. Reading and writing in response is difficult for me. I have repeatedly asked, in writing, the superintendent to correspond in some other fashion. I have cited my disability as rationale for that request. However, the superintendent continues to communicate with me only in writing, unlike his method(s) of communicating with other principals.”

Mr. Terrill said he has not been well for some time and fears the pressure and stress with which he is dealing are hurting his health.

“While I can not allow that to happen, I do not wish to be forced out of my job and I do not want to lose the ability to support my family,” he wrote.

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