Slippery Rock U., West Middlesex settle with partially deaf woman

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 By Jerome L. Sherman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania and the West Middlesex Area School District yesterday reached a settlement with a partially deaf woman who claimed they stopped her from becoming a certified teacher because of her disability.

Neither the university nor the school district will admit to discrimination under the terms of the settlement. But they will pay an amount "well into the six figures" to Stephanie A. Wetzel, according to her lawyer, Samuel J. Cordes.

Ms. Wetzel, who used the name Stephanie Burns when the lawsuit was filed in federal court two years ago, also will have a chance to return to a state university and obtain her teaching certificate. She graduated from Slippery Rock in 2005 without the certificate.

"There's absolutely no reason she can't teach," Mr. Cordes said. "She brings other things to the classroom. She's a great role model."

In April 2005, Ms. Wetzel claimed, Slippery Rock's coordinator for education field experience removed her from an assignment at West Middlesex Elementary School and told her to begin a speech therapy course.

As a child, Ms. Wetzel, of Boyers, Butler County, was diagnosed with a genetic hearing loss, which also hampered her speech. Yet she argued that those problems didn't prevent her from communicating with students.

She told the field experience coordinator that she had been through years of speech therapy as a child. Additional sessions wouldn't help, she said.

Mr. Cordes said the university was "setting her up to fail," even though Ms. Wetzel had completed all of her academic courses and only needed to finish a three-week field assignment and a student teaching internship to get her certificate.

According to court documents, university and West Middlesex officials claimed that they didn't remove Ms. Wetzel because of her speech limitations. Instead, they were concerned about her personal hygiene, poor grammar and her interactions with students.

Ms. Wetzel was placed in the fourth-grade classroom of Georgiana Luce, who said: "In my 33 years, I had never experienced or I had never seen anyone that was as unprepared as she was."

Ms. Luce said Ms. Wetzel was "sloppily dressed" and "did not use correct English."

After her removal, Ms. Wetzel sued the university and the school district, citing discrimination under the American With Disabilities and the Rehabilitation acts.

Jury selection was due to begin yesterday, but U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose coaxed the parties to reach a settlement.