Sunday, January 13, 2013

Teacher claims discrimination over her phobia – fear of kids

MARIEMONT — A longtime French and Spanish high school teacher is suing the Mariemont school district, alleging it discriminated against her because she has a disability – she has a phobia of young children.

Maria C. Waltherr-Willard, 61, of Greenhills says the district in which she worked for 35 years discriminated against her when it reassigned her in 2010 from its high school to its junior high and then pressured her to resign.

The suit claims the discrimination is based on her age and her disability, a rare phobia called pedophobia, which in this context means an extreme fear or anxiety around young children.

Waltherr-Willard’s lawsuit claims she has suffered from the condition since the 1990s and that Mariemont had made assurances to her and her lawyer that she would not have to teach young children.

Documents filed in the case by her medical doctor, psychiatrists and psychologists note that she experiences stress, anxiety, chest pains, vomiting, nightmares and higher than healthy blood pressure when she’s around young children.

A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed three of the six claims in her lawsuit, claims which alleged Mariemont violated an implied contract to keep her from young students.

District Judge Herman J. Weber said the district lived up to its written contract – with the teachers union – and that Waltherr-Willard would still be employed had she not resigned.

He did not rule on the other main allegations of the suit, giving the district’s attorneys more time to respond to them. If the case goes to trial, it’s scheduled for February 2014, according to court documents.

Waltherr-Willard, a Greenhills village council member since January 2012, declined to comment recently on her lawsuit, referring questions to her attorney, Bradford Weber, who did not return phone calls for comment.

Experts in phobias say that irrational fear or extreme anxiety around children is a rare but recognized anxiety disorder though it’s unclear how many people have been diagnosed with it.

“It’s a tough phobia. You can’t really get away from (children) when you’re outside,” said Dr. Caleb Adler, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati.

“When you’re a teacher, it may not be an issue with older students.”

The term pedophobia also can refer to a fear of dolls, a distaste for children or, in the case of parents, an obsession with one’s own children.

Adler said he has not treated Waltherr-Willard and has never had a patient with pedophobia, but patients with other specific phobias often are treated with anti-anxiety medications and cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on coping mechanisms and changing behaviors and perceptions about the object of fear.

“Phobias are often the butt of jokes,” he said.

“They’re a sitcom staple in ways that are not acceptable for other disorders. ... I have a lot of respect for someone who, rather than alter their lives to accommodate a phobia, they initiate treatment.”

By some estimates 4 to 9 percent of people have some specific phobia, studies say, and only 12 to 30 percent of them seek help.

Waltherr-Willard was born in Cuba and traveled to the United States in 1969 at age 18. A naturalized citizen, she was a native Spanish and French speaker who became fluent in English and Italian.

Mariemont hired her in 1976 to work at its high school, teaching Spanish and French classes. In 1997 the district asked her to teach a Spanish enrichment class to 4th through 6th graders, but she and her attorney at the time, Alphonse Gerhardstein, objected to it, claiming medical reasons. The district accommodated her, agreeing to keep her at the high school.

According to her personnel file, Waltherr-Willard scored high marks in all of the written evaluations she received over the years, including the latest in 2010. She had a continuing contract with the school district, which is similar to having tenure, and made about $84,000 a year.

She began having trouble in 2009, when she discussed with parents the likelihood that the district would eliminate teacher-led French courses at the high school. The high school planned to offer it online.

Parents complained, and in December of that year, Superintendent Paul Imhoff and high school principal James Renner reprimanded Waltherr-Willard, warning her that if she continued talking to parents about the French changes, her job would be at risk and they would put a memo in her personnel file.

Waltherr-Willard alleges they retaliated against her by transferring her to the junior high to teach 7th and 8th grade Spanish in 2009 and for the 2010-11 school year. French as a face-to-face class was being phased out at the high school and another teacher would teach the few remaining French students part-time.

By Janaury 2011, Waltherr-Willard said, she had successfully rebuilt Mariemont Junior High’s Spanish program but her blood pressure was often at dangerous levels. She asked again, in writing, to return to high school teaching.

Imhoff responded in writing that there was no open position but he’d keep her request on file.

Waltherr-Willard retired in March 2011, and in July of that year she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. The commission dismissed her complaint in March 2012, giving her the right to sue the district, which she did in June.

In court documents Mariemont officials say they did not expect Waltherr-Willard to resign when she did. They said she was replaced at the high school by teachers who also were in their 50s.


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