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The Braille Monitor – February, 2001 Edition

 

Diggs and Capps Meet with Pickens County School Board on Coffman Issue

 

Parnell Diggs Don Capps
                    Parnell Diggs
                         Don Capps

From the Editor: As you read in the previous article, for over a year the South Carolina affiliate and member Carol Randolph fought hard to win the right for Carol to teach in the Greenville school district. With astonishing eagerness the Greenville schools set aside her experience and her credentials seventeen times, but in the end officials were forced to hire her and pay her a significant sum because of their past discrimination.

During that struggle the expert witness the Greenville schools brought in to bolster their continued refusal to consider Ms. Randolph for a job was the Director of Special Services from the Pickens County school system next door. This fine example of fair-mindedness and up-to-date training was Miriam Gant Coffman, whose attitudes and opinions as expressed in her deposition belonged squarely in the nineteenth century.

Despite the damage Coffman's deposition might have done, Carol Randolph got her job and her damages, which was the first order of business for everyone on Carol Randolph's side. But once that was done, the affiliate turned to the Pickens County situation and the impact that Coffman was necessarily having on the lives of the blind students unlucky enough to fall under her influence. First NFB officials tried writing to the superintendent, but he refused to consider their request. Then NFB of South Carolina President Parnell Diggs and President Emeritus Donald Capps made an appointment to talk to the school board. They had done their homework thoroughly before their appearance. This is the way it happened as recounted in the November, 2000, issue of the Palmetto Blind, the publication of the NFB of South Carolina:

President Parnell Diggs and President Emeritus Donald Capps appeared before the Pickens County School Board Monday evening, October 23, 2000. The hearing was to consider testimony given by Pickens County Schools Director of Special Services, Mrs. Miriam Gant Coffman, in a deposition taken March 17, 2000. Others present at the hearing included Betty Capps; David Houck, executive director of the Federation Center of the Blind; and Tracey Bryant Bundy, a vision teacher at Crayton Middle School in Columbia. Portions of a cassette recording of Mrs. Coffman's deposition were played for the nine-member Pickens County School Board and Dr. Mendel Stewart, Superintendent. A bound book of pertinent materials and documents related to Mrs. Coffman's testimony was given to the School Board and Dr. Stewart. This material was also given to the media, including the Greenville News, the Easley Progress, and the Pickens Sentinel.

The hearing was held in executive session. Dr. Stewart told Diggs later that the board had referred the matter to Dr. Stewart to handle. No doubt the board gave specific instructions to him. However, at this writing (late October) we do not know what the final action will be. In addition to Mrs. Coffman's recorded testimony, Mr. Diggs and Mr. Capps made brief comments regarding the seriousness of Coffman's demeaning testimony, given under oath. The material given to board members, Dr. Stewart, and the media included the following letter:

October 23, 2000

BY HAND DELIVERY

Mr. Joe Tankersley, Chairman and Members of the Board School District of Pickens County

Easley, South Carolina

Dear Mr. Tankersley and Members of the Board:

The topic which we are here to discuss tonight is of critical importance to the blind students in Pickens County. The principle which is involved is of critical importance to the blind in South Carolina and to the over 50,000 blind Americans in this country. We thank you for the privilege of bringing to your attention facts which, if uncorrected, present unacceptable discrimination against the blind students of this county and, as a precedent, affect Americans throughout the country.

The time available for our oral presentation is limited. We, therefore, in fairness to the decision-making process, present these materials so that you will have all of the facts. One of your employees has expressed opinions that are unacceptable for someone supervising those who teach blind students. We therefore ask you to remove her from any supervisory position with control over the education of blind students in Pickens County. Please review the facts which follow. These facts can be neither contradicted nor denied.

Background

We ask that you please review the Order of the Honorable G. Ross Anderson, Jr., which is attached hereto. [1] We also attach correspondence between the NFB of South Carolina and the Pickens County School District which shows the progress of the matter to date. [2] The opinions of your director of special services [3] were called to our attention when she was offered as an expert witness in a case where a blind school teacher in Greenville County had applied for some seventeen positions with the Greenville County School District and was denied most of those positions at least in part because she was blind. Ultimately a suitable job was offered to the blind teacher, damages of well over $100,000 were paid, and sensitivity training was agreed to by the Greenville School District. These facts are uncontradicted and undenied and are true, accurate, and correct. [4] Your director of special services's unacceptable opinions and beliefs supported the view of the Greenville County School District and came to the attention of the National Federation of the Blind from testimony given by her under oath in a deposition taken under the discovery rules of the United States District Court on March 17, 2000.

What are Ms. Coffman's opinions on the abilities of the blind? As an overview of her testimony we enclose an article from the Palmetto Blind. [5]

What we learned that afternoon about her views was shocking. She testified under oath, "Carol Randolph looks like a blind person. She, if you want to use the word mealy, she's submissive." [Coffman Deposition, page 145, lines 8-10]. Ms. Coffman testified that the professors at Clemson who are teaching Ms. Randolph her doctorate-level courses, are "wasting their time." [Page 140, lines 21-23.] It's not fair, Ms. Coffman testified, to students or their parents for students to have a blind teacher. [Page 141, line 25, through page 142, line 6.] Ms. Coffman declared that she would not want a blind person teaching her child. [Page 142, lines 7-8.]

If Ms. Coffman will say such things under oath when she knows that her words are being recorded and listened to by an advocate for the blind, what lies beneath the surface? What does she really think? What actions does she take because she discriminates against blind people? We know that Ms. Coffman has taken one action against a child solely because he was blind: she discouraged him from becoming what he wanted to be--a high school history teacher. [Page 103, lines 6-104, line 7,] And that was solely because he was blind. What impression is she conveying to the special education teachers whose job it is to provide an appropriate education to students in the least restrictive environment?

Yet your School District's own Web site for Special Services states: "It is the goal of the School District of Pickens County in conjunction with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, to provide full educational opportunities to all children with disabilities."

There are additional quotes from Ms. Coffman's testimony of March 17, 2000, which are included herein: [6]

Q: Why are people afraid of blind people?

A: Lack of contact.

Q: And if they had more contact--

A: Lack of appropriate behavior from a blind person.

Q: Is that a trait of blind people? They engage in inappropriate behavior?

A: Yes, they do.

[Page 73, lines 4-11.]

Q: I was not following what you were saying. You've watched blind people have these difficulties--

A: Hurdles--

Q: And hurdles--

A: And see these difficulties, and incur them many times, many cases. Therefore, I know, or I feel that there are definite walks in life that they would be and could be very suited for.

Q: But one of which is not teaching?

A: One of which is not teaching at the middle-school or high-school level.

[Page 102, line 21, through page 103, line 6]

Q: I was asking before the break if you were going to testify as to whether Carol Randolph herself were qualified to teach in any of these positions as opposed to blind people in general, and I understand that you are now willing to give an opinion on that. Is that true?

A: That's true.

Q: What is your opinion?

A: Carol Randolph looks like a blind person. She acts like a blind person. She--if you want to use the word mealy, she's submissive. She is non-authoritative. She doesn't have spunk.

[Page 144, line 25 through page 145, line 11]

Q: You used the word mealy. What do you mean by the word mealy?

A: Mousey. You know, keel over and die if you fuss at me. Not strong-willed. Not self-confident.

[Page 150, lines 17-20]

A: Can you imagine a seventeen-year-old with that person [Ms. Randolph] as their teacher? They would say something about her hair. They would say something about the way she flicks her fingers against her glass. Did you hear that?

Q: I didn't notice.

A: She has mannerisms. Blind mannerisms. They all do. And you overlook them. If you--

Q: They all do what? I'm sorry.

A: They all have ticks. They do.

Q: Blind people do?

A: Blind people do.

Q: And all blind people have these mannerisms?

A: But some are more pronounced than others.

[Page 153, line 19 through page 154, line 10]

Q: But to relate all this to the ability of a blind person to teach, are you saying that that's one of the distracting things that makes her less appealing as an applicant for a teacher?

A: Yeah. So a blind person that already is subservient, that has a little something that they do, you know, that's just one more thing to give a child not to like you, or to have disrespect for you. You have to earn your respect with children.

Q: And blind people have trouble doing that?

A: In the role of teaching.

Q: In fact, can blind people earn respect as teachers?

A: At the elementary level.

[Page 155, line 21 through page 156, line 16]

Q: What else is it about the way blind people are that makes them inappropriate--or ineffective, I should say, as middle or high school teachers other than what you've described so far today? I'm talking about personality things, appearance things, respect things. Stuff like that?

A: I think I covered--well, don't you think I have pretty much put her down as low as I could do. Isn't that terrible? God, that's awful. Blind people have a tendency to not be very stylish.

[Page 159, lines 11-22]

A: So if your ego as a blind person is not strong enough to get you through the burdens of being dependent on someone else, you become submissive. You become subservient.

[Page 160, lines 10-13]

A: They're just different people. Just like you and I are different. Blind people are different, and the way they handle their walks in life are very different. That's why they have different jobs that they need to be into.

[Page 160, line 24 page 161, line 3.

How do those opinions create unacceptable discrimination against the blind?

By her testimony Ms. Coffman bore witness to the fact that she does not fully appreciate or understand what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1997 really means. But, more importantly, her testimony shows that she believes that Americans should feel sorry for blind people, that Americans should protect blind people, and that Americans should make blind people tax receivers instead of taxpayers. You have as your director of special services a person who may as well have said that blind people should throw up the white flag of surrender, give up all hope of self-respect, and resign themselves to a lifetime of self-pity.

But, as United States Federal District Judge G. Ross Anderson stated in his Order in the Randolph case: "Discrimination is more often based on ignorance and unfounded fear than it is on bad faith and hatred." As Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, a leader of the organized blind, stated in 1970:

Of all the roadblocks in the path of the blind today, one rises up more formidably and threateningly than all others. It is the invisible barrier of ingrained social attitudes toward blindness and the blind--attitudes based on suspicion and superstition, on ignorance and error, which continue to hold sway in men's minds and to keep the blind in bondage. [7]

This kind of ignorance and unfounded fear might be understandable from an uneducated layman on the streets, but for a certified teacher--your director of special services, who is in charge of the district's programs for blind students and supervises other teachers--to hold such opinions is unacceptable.

How her opinions affect blind students and others (above and below her) with responsibility for educating the blind.

In order to have excellence in school systems, leaders must provide symbolic leadership. [8] Through symbolic leadership top-level education administrators signal and demonstrate what is valued and what goals override all others. These leaders communicate a vision for followers. The symbolic school leader establishes a sense of order and direction and provides a clear and unified vision of the organization. [9]

The Pygmalion Effect

Ms. Coffman's opinions of the blind are infused into her subordinates and blind students. The Pygmalion Effect is a well-recognized psychological doctrine in education and management. Under the Pygmalion Effect one's expectations about a person lead that person to behave and achieve in ways that confirm those expectations. Her low expectations for the potential achievements of blind people are communicated both directly and indirectly to blind students. She has counseled at least one blind student directly not to pursue a career that the student was capable of performing. It is a self‑fulfilling prophecy that trickles down through her subordinates to blind students. [10]

As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485, 493 (1952), a teacher "shapes the attitude of young minds towards the society in which they live. In this, the state has a vital concern. It must preserve the integrity of the schools. That the school authorities have the right and the duty to screen the officials, teachers, and employees as to their fitness to maintain the integrity of the schools as a part of ordered society cannot be doubted."

Ms. Coffman administers the district's program for educating disabled students (including blind students) of Pickens County. As the leader of this program she sets the tone for all of those under her regarding the education of blind students. She signals to them what is valued and what goals override others. To her subordinates Ms. Coffman is the most salient, tangible representative of the school district's management actions, policies, and procedures regarding blind students. She is the filter that provides the basis for their perceptions of the views of the superintendent and the Board of Trustees toward the blind. [11]

The Cat's Paw Theory

Under a theory called the "cat's paw," employers who themselves did not engage in discriminatory practices have been held vicariously liable for the actions of their supervisory-level subordinates. From the perspective of the person discriminated against, the supervisor and the employer merge into a single entity. [12] When a review committee, unaware of a manager's discrimination, acts as a conduit of the manager's prejudice‑‑his cat's paw‑‑the innocence of the committee members does not spare the company from liability. [13] The imputed liability also exists where a subordinate is able to manipulate the decision-making process and influence the decision by concealing relevant information from a higher decision maker. [14]

Our Concerns

We have presented our concerns to the district superintendent with a request that he take corrective action. The superintendent responded in his letter of August 22, 2000, as follows:

I must respectfully deny the request made through the resolution that this District take steps to "ensure that Ms. Gant-Coffman no longer directly participates in the instruction of blind children in the District or has direct contact with blind students in the District. Ms. Coffman has served this District well in her position as Director of Programs for Exceptional Children, and I see no basis for changing her assignment or her responsibilities in any way.

On September 1, 2000, he wrote: "I have no intent of carrying out the actions you requested and, at this point, of proposing any other alternative resolutions."

The superintendent's failure to take decisive action to prevent Ms. Coffman from being involved with the education of blind students in Pickens County is tantamount to drinking water from the well she has poisoned.

What Does The Law Provide?

If you were to choose to limit your director of special services's duties so that she no longer has any direct or indirect contact with blind students, you would be going a long way to avoiding violating numerous federal laws and regulations. With her you have working for you someone who is on record, under oath, saying reprehensible things about blind people. Someone who has said, "Blind people are different" and blind people "have different jobs that they need to be into." Do you want that millstone hanging around your neck when a federal judge is asking whether in fact your blind students are being treated consistently with your director of special services's opinions about blind people?

Do you want that millstone hanging around your neck when a federal judge is asking whether you've complied with the requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act that no blind person be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity?

Do you want that millstone hanging around your neck when a federal judge is asking whether you've complied with the requirement of the Rehabilitation Act that no otherwise qualified individual with a disability, solely by reason of that disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance?

Do you want that millstone hanging around your neck when a federal judge is asking whether you've violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by denying blind students free and appropriate education services in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their unique needs?

Do you want that millstone hanging around your neck when a federal judge is asking whether you've violated the regulations promulgated to administer the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for example, (1) by denying blind students the ability to learn to use appropriate technology to obtain access to information; (2) by denying blind students access to orientation and mobility services; or (3) by denying blind students a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather functional and developmental information about the blind child?

Do you want that millstone hanging around your neck when a federal judge is asking whether you've complied with the requirements of the IDEA in terms of evaluating a blind child's health, vision, social status, emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities?

Conclusion

We submit that, if this director of special services were in charge of Clemson University, Ph.D.-level blind students would not be admitted. If she were in charge of the USC Law School, blind lawyers would not be practicing law. If she were in charge of hiring middle- and high-school teachers, there would never be a blind school teacher at that level without an order of the court mandating it and overruling her prejudices.

If this director of special services were in charge of the South Carolina educational system, Dr. John E. Swearingen could not have entered the University of South Carolina. He would not have been permitted to teach in the public school system, and he never would have been elected to seven separate terms as the Superintendent of Education in South Carolina, because he was totally blind. His contribution to the State of South Carolina is best described by Francis W. Bradley in the Foreword of Dr. Swearingen's biography, A Gallant Journey, published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1959:

The story of Mr. Swearingen's life is the history of education... when he laid the solid foundation for the much-needed growth and development out of the three-month school into the standardized nine-month schools we now have. Without his brilliant intellect, his iron will, and his unshakable faith the task could not have been accomplished....

He taught the children not only what was in the books but also what was more important to them, the determination to use their intelligence and perseverance to overcome their handicap and rise to the stature of useful, independent, and self-respecting citizens.

The blind students of Pickens County and their parents are entitled to knowledgeable, sensitive teachers and supervisors, not just because the protections accorded blind students demand it, not just because the ADA requires it, not just because the State of South Carolina insists upon it, but most importantly because it's the right, honorable, decent human thing to do.

We urge you to take action so that Ms. Coffman will no longer be in a position to influence the blind students in Pickens County and so that she is removed from any supervisory capacity or control over others involved with the education of blind students of Pickens County.

Respectfully submitted,

Donald C. Capps
President Emeritus

Parnell Diggs
President

Footnotes:

[1] Please see the Order dated November 1, 1999, of U. S. District Court Judge G. Ross Anderson, Jr., at page 14

[2[ Letter from Dr. Mendel Stewart to Mr. Donald Capps, dated 8/22/00 at page 36; letter from Mr. Capps to Dr. Stewart dated 8/25/00 at page 37; letter from Mr. Diggs to Dr. Stewart dated 8/31/00 at page 39; letter from Dr. Stewart to Mr. Capps dated 9/1/00 at page 40; letter from Mr. Capps and Mr. Diggs to Dr. Stewart dated 9/6/00 at page 41; letter from Mr. Capps and Mr. Diggs to Mr. Joe Tankersley, Chairman of the Pickens County School Board dated 9/6/00 at page 43.

[3] Miriam Gant Coffman

[4] See the Order of Judge Anderson referred to at page 14, along with the Consent Order discussing the case at page 34.

[5] "Victory In The Lawsuit Against The Greenville County School District," the Palmetto Blind, (The Voice of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina), published May, 2000, at page 44.

[6] A copy of the entire transcript of Miriam Coffman's deposition is available but is expensive to reproduce. We are confident that the director of special services has a copy.

[7] See Order at page 31 thereof.

[8] Seregiovanni, T. (1984). Leadership and Excellence in Schooling. Educational Leadership. 41(5). 4-13.

[9] Haplin. A. & Croft, D. (1967). The Organizational Climate of Schools. USC Office of Education Project. 543-8639.

[10] See "Good or Bad, What Teachers Expect From Students They Generally Get!" from the ERIC Clearinghouse of Teaching and Teacher Education about the Pygmalion Effect at page 67.

[11] See articles documenting the effects of a supervisor's opinion on subordinates at page 73. Kozlowski, S, & Doherty, M. 1989. Integration of climate and leadership: Examination of a neglected topic. Journal of Applied Psychology. 74: 546-553., at pages 547 and Scott, S. and Bruce, R. The Influence of Leadership, Individual Attributes, and Climate on Innovative Behavior: A Model of Individual Innovation in the Workplace. pp. 3-5 of 22 total.

[12] Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth. 534 U. S. 742 (1988)

[13[ Shager v. Upjohn Co., 913 F.2d 398, 405 (7th Cir. 1990).

[14] Wallace v. SMC Pneumatics, Inc., 103 F.3d 1394, 1400 (7th Cir. 1997).

 

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