RICHMOND >> A middle school in Richmond discriminated against a student with hearing loss when a music teacher failed to wear a special microphone, the Vermont Human Rights Commission has determined.
A disability accommodation plan for the 13-year-old student at Camels Hump Middle School required teachers and staff to wear and use a special FM microphone that transmits sound directly to the student's sound processor implants. The student was born with very narrow ear canals and as a result has conductive hearing loss. The implants change sound waves into vibrations that bypass her ears and produce signals her brain can interpret, according to the Human Rights Commission report.
One teacher made a "unilateral decision" not to use the FM system in her band and choir classes for two years even though she said she had read the student's plan, according to the report. After an investigation, the commission determined there are grounds to believe the school and Chittenden East Supervisory Union violated the Vermont Fair Housing and Public Accommodations Act.
Superintendent John Alberghini disagreed with the outcome of the investigation. In an email he wrote: "I am deeply disappointed and strongly disagree with the HRC's conclusion that there may have been discrimination."
Alberghini characterized the failure as a "technical error" and said that even though a music teacher decided "it was best for the student to not use the hearing technology," the student performed at a "high level" in music.
The student studied singing and percussion instruments in fifth and sixth grades in a class that combined instruction and playing music.
"It is really clear that (the student) needed an accommodation and it was not provided for her," said Deb Charlea Baker, who is familiar with the case and is an advocate for those with hearing loss. "What is so sad is that she dropped out of band. Maybe band is something she would really enjoy if she had accommodations, but now that door is closed."
According to the investigators' report, the accommodation plan for the student said the FM unit "should be worn, powered on, with the unit approximately 6 inches from your mouth, at all times. On during instruction, and shut off when working with other individual students, or at private times." It added that it should even be used at lunch and recess and that if the student says she doesn't need it, then the teacher is to ask her why.
"School is a very content dense environment, and classrooms are notoriously noisy," Baker said. The FM system wirelessly takes a teacher's voice and puts it in the hearing aid, bypassing all the outside sounds, she said.
The teacher said she didn't use the FM system because the student complained that it was hurting her. She also told investigators she "had not used it at all in both chorus and band lessons and that this was a conscious and thoughtful decision that came about as a result of discussions with (school) staff," the report said.
The school bought the equipment the student needed and held in-service training for all of her teachers, the report said. The music teacher who chose not to use the FM system never attended that training, according to the investigation. If just one teacher fails to implement a student's accommodation plan, the school district can be found to be in noncompliance with the law.
The Human Rights Commission determined a jury could "reasonably" find that the teacher acted with "deliberate indifference" and didn't fully appreciate the student's disability. "This underappreciation is sufficient to support a finding that the discrimination was on the basis of (the student's) disability," according to the report.
The school administration's "laissez-faire attitude and approach" in handling the student's accommodations was another factor, the report said.
Since the complaint's filing in May 2015, the teacher has received training with the FM system and began using it correctly, the report said.
Human Rights Commission Executive Director Karen Richards said she is working on a settlement with the family and the school district. That could include monetary damages paid to the family, but Richards said she also expects to ensure there will be more accountability and training for staff.
Tiffany Danitz Pache is VTDigger's education reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.