N.Y. Town in Turmoil Over Teacher's Pregnancy

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Kathleen V. Williamsen says she had always known that her principal didn't like pregnancy in her Elmont, N.Y., school--meaning teacher pregnancy.

So it was with reluctance that the rookie teacher gave the news to Principal Diane Scricca that she and her husband of two months were expecting a baby. Since then, the 30-year-old art teacher claims, her fears have proven justified in that she is about to be fired from her job at Elmont Memorial High School because she became a mother.

Nonsense, district officials respond. "We are family people," said George Goldstein, the superintendent of the 8,000-student Sewanaka Central High School District. "We don't discriminate about anything in this district."

But Ms. Williamsen's case has rocked the normally tranquil relations between the local teachers' union and district administrators. It has put faculty at the school on edge and brought swarms of reporters to Elmont, just over the border from New York City on Long Island.

Teachers' Protest

Two weeks ago, between 125 and 200 teachers and retired teachers--the number is a matter of dispute--protested in support of Ms. Williamsen at a school board meeting. The superintendent charges that the teachers were disruptive. Leaders of the Sewanaka Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the National Education Association, say the superintendent wouldn't hear them out.

Meanwhile, Ms. Williamsen tends her 8-week-old daughter, Colleen, and is considering legal action against the district, which her supporters say has violated the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The federal law bars employers from firing or refusing to hire a woman because she is pregnant.

Ms. Williamsen said in an interview last week that other teachers had warned her that the principal found pregnancies "incredibly inconvenient," didn't like the disruption when substitutes came in midyear, and frowned on the shorter hours that young mothers kept.

But, Ms. Williamsen said, it wasn't until her first evaluation after telling the principal about her pregnancy that things seemed strongly amiss. In seven evaluations the year before, according to the teacher, "I was cited for being creative, dynamic, enthusiastic, competent, and all of a sudden I was practically incompetent."

By the time she left on maternity leave in January, she had had three "unsatisfactory" reviews. She said she and her husband, Gerard Williamsen, a tenured science teacher at another school in the district, concluded she was soon to be given a choice between dismissal and resignation.

Matthew Jacobs, the local union president, says the record of Ms. Williamsen's evaluations "speaks very loudly and clearly about what happened. The conclusion is unavoidable."

Both Mr. Goldstein and Ms. Scricca said they could not legally discuss any specifics of the teacher's case because they are personnel matters. But in a brief phone conversation last week with a reporter, Ms. Scricca, the 1994 New York State Distinguished Principal of the Year, expressed frustration. "This thing has taken on a life of its own, it really has," she said.

Mr. Goldstein turned down the union leader's request to let Ms. Williamsen serve the remaining months of her probationary period at another high school. The superintendent said a decision on Ms. Williamsen would not be made until that period was up.

Problems With Style?

Michael D. Epstein, a mathematics teacher who represents the union at Elmont Memorial, said that while it is possible this is the sole case of discrimination at the school, "things have been building toward something like this for a very long time."

He praised Ms. Scricca for her efficient running of the school, her commitment, and her dealings with students. But, he said, her behavior toward teachers "can cause problems. No one feels comfortable disagreeing with her."

Experts differ over the frequency of discrimination against pregnant women.

Michael D. Simpson, the assistant general counsel for the NEA, said claims of discrimination against pregnant teachers are rare in his experience. He noted, though, that as recently as the 1940s, many states required female teachers to be unmarried or to leave if they became pregnant.

But Martha F. Davis, the legal director for the New York-based NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, said she believes such discrimination against women is generally a common occurrence. However, she added, "it's so much a part of the culture, some women may not realize it's illegal." Others are reluctant to fight it, she said, when their personal lives are undergoing so much change.

Vol. 18, Issue 35, Page 3

Published in Print: May 12, 1999, as N.Y. Town in Turmoil Over Teacher's Pregnancy
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