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Former Harford Co. teacher sues over alleged disability discrimination

(iStock/aluxum)

(iStock/aluxum)

A former Harford County elementary school teacher whose disability causes chronic pain and limits her ability to move without crutches has filed a lawsuit against the county board of education, alleging she was bullied, harassed and denied reasonable accommodations.

Kourtney Hamel suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which results in overly flexible joints that frequently dislocate, as well as fragile skin that does not heal well and weakened arteries in some organs that make them vulnerable to rupture. She taught fourth grade at Emmorton Elementary School in Bel Air for about four years without incident until she became the “target of discriminatory conduct” beginning in 2010 when a new principal and assistant principal were hired, the lawsuit alleges.

The school’s new administrators, Peter Carpenter and Audrey Vohs, singled Hamel out for discrimination by treating her differently than non-disabled teachers and making frequent, unnecessary inquiries into her disability that were not related to her ability to function effectively as a teacher, according to the suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

“Dr. Carpenter changed school policies to make it more difficult for Ms. Hamel to perform her job effectively, and he urged teachers to participate in activities geared toward non-disabled individuals with the intent of excluding Ms. Hamel from the school community,” the suit states. “On numerous occasions, he made gratuitous and slighting remarks or intrusive inquiries about her disability.”

Carpenter allegedly prohibited students from retrieving items from teachers’ mailboxes, a task Hamel had frequently assigned to her students due to her mobility issues, the suit states. Carpenter also told Hamel she had to accompany her students as they moved from floor to floor throughout the building, even though previous school administrators had allowed Hamel to take the elevator while a colleague supervised her students on the stairs.

Hamel’s classroom also was moved from the third floor to an area on the first floor not readily accessible to the elevator, isolating her from the rest of her educational team, according to the complaint.

“I think the complaint is emblematic of the misconceptions that many people have, that people with disabilities are broken in some fashion,” said Daniel F. Goldstein of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore, an attorney for Hamel. “People with disabilities do the same work; they just do it differently.”

Jillian Lader, communications manager for Harford County Public Schools, said Tuesday that the school system does not comment on personnel issues involving current or former employees. Neither Carpenter nor Vohs are listed as Emmorton administrators on the school’s website.

Hamel requested to be transferred to another elementary school in the county in May 2013. The board of education agreed to grant her accommodations, such as locating her in a classroom on the same floor as the rest of her team, but refused her transfer request, the suit states. Hamel went on leave soon after another teacher made an insulting remark about her disability, according to Goldstein and the complaint.

In November 2013, the board informed Hamel that her position had been permanently filled, but that she would be reinstated in the next available position once she was medically cleared to return to work. But Hamel has been unable to return to work due to her disability and the post-traumatic stress disorder she experienced as a result of the “bullying, intimidation, and hostile environment” at the school, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, which alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, including front and back pay and lost employee benefits resulting from Hamel’s entering disability retirement before reaching 10 years of service.

The case is Kourtney Hamel v. Board of Education of Harford County, 1:16-cv-02876-ELH.