Mary Willows

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Mary Willows]

Sheila Johnson

[PHOTO/CAPTION: Sheila Johnson]

The Sheila Johnson Case:
University Prevented from Pulling a Fast One

by Mary Willows

From the President: There are those who tell me that discrimination against the blind is a thing of the past. The laws are too strong, and public sentiment is too great to permit such unreasonable behavior, they say. Blindness may have been the basis for unjust actions in former times, but those who speak of the need for equal treatment today are making a mountain out of a molehill. Such notions I have sometimes heard, but the individuals who say these things are often seeking a salve for their consciences rather than speaking the truth.

There are literally hundreds (perhaps thousands) of blind teachers in the United States. These teachers work in elementary classrooms, in high schools, and in the halls of higher education. Nevertheless, discrimination sometimes still exists. Consider the following account by Mary Willows, President of the National Association of Blind Educators. Here is what she says:

I am sharing this information with all of you because it is still another example of "Why the NFB?" Sheila Johnson was a National Scholarship winner in Anaheim in 1996. She entered the bilingual Education Credential Program in the fall of 1997. This is supposed to be a two-semester program. She was scheduled to complete the requirements for her credential in May of 1998. The credential she sought would qualify her to teach in a bilingual classroom. Teachers with these qualifications are in great demand in the San Diego area.

I will leave out the gory details of the numerous unanswered e-mail messages Sheila endured before she finally turned to the NFB for help.

At the end of her first semester (December, 1997) Sheila was told in a conversation with her university supervisor that she had made satisfactory progress and would be getting credit for her first semester of student teaching. However, when she called the grade line the following week, she discovered that she had been given a grade of no credit for her student teaching experience. A series of phone calls and e-mail messages ensued. She never received a satisfactory answer as to why she did not get credit for class number 961.

In the meantime she was allowed to begin her second semester of student teaching, class number 962. She worked throughout February and March. San Diego State does not hold classes in April, so she resumed student teaching in May. At her final meeting with her master teacher and university supervisor in mid-May, she was informed that she would have to complete an additional eight weeks of teaching. So she continued student teaching with yet another unqualified mentor teacher. By the way, throughout her student teaching Sheila was placed in classrooms with teachers who had said that they would be willing to work with her. However, these teachers were not veterans and would not normally have been asked to mentor a student teacher. In fact, one of them was just a first-year teacher. Also one of the goals of student teaching is to expose the student to various grade levels. But for some reason Sheila was placed with third-grade teachers only.

She completed her assigned placement on July 21, 1998. In addition, she was told that she would have to register for the fall, 1998, semester course 961, even though she would not be attending any classes or doing any student teaching. Her university supervisor (the placement coordinator) had not instructed her to register for summer extension courses; therefore, she could not receive credit until the fall. At this point she called me to request my help in straightening out this mess.

In May she was told to submit her credential application and $75 fee to the credentials office, which she did. A credential application is normally held at the university credentials office until completion of course requirements can be verified. But in Sheila's case—she was informed—verification of completion could not be made until at least December, 1998, and probably January, 1999. A credential application is good for only six months, which meant, of course, that in October, 1998, (six months after her original payment) Sheila's credential application and fees would become null and void. She would have to start the application process all over again. The student is held responsible for any new laws, tests, or required courses which may be added to credential requirements during the six-month period. As it happens, a new Reading Instruction and Curriculum Assessment test requirement has in fact been added, beginning in October of 1998.

On Monday, August 3, 1998, I flew to San Diego to see what I could do to assist Sheila to clear up this mess and make her job-ready by September, which is when the teaching jobs open. I worked with Colonel David Staley of our North San Diego County Chapter as my reader. Sybil Irvin, also of North County, came to observe this advocacy process.

I would like to stop here and say that, although I had asked Sheila to go to the office and read through her file, it really does take a trained person to know what to look for. Thanks to the advice of Allen Harris prior to my trip to San Diego and my training in the NFB, I caught glaring paperwork errors and file omissions. There was evidence that white-out had been used on her first semester grade—the white-out credit grade had been replaced with the no-credit grade. Her first semester university supervisor documented that, in her opinion, Sheila had made satisfactory progress. However, if the placement coordinator would like her to edit, subtract, add, or change the report, he should let her know. All of Sheila's February and March observation evaluations had been removed from her file. Fortunately, Sheila had kept copies of these observation evaluations, complete with dates.

The May through July observation evaluations were numbered one through eight, with the mid-term evaluation at the beginning of June. The final evaluation was dated in July, which made it appear as though Sheila's second-semester student teaching had taken place from May through July, when actually it had taken place in February, March, and the beginning of May. There was a handwritten note dated July 22, which said that she had completed the work but must register for the fall, 1998, semester in order to get credit. This was the only way the university supervisor would get his $250 fee for supervising her.

In an appointment with the chairman of the department I laid out all the evidence I have presented here. Initially he did not want to take any action. I told him that on behalf of Sheila I was requesting that she be granted a grade change for the fall, 1997, student-teaching class, 961. This would give her credit for all the work she had done; free up her credential application to be sent to Sacramento for processing; and enable her to begin applying for jobs immediately.

Finally he agreed to a grade change. I told him that I wanted something in writing before we left. He squirmed again, so I kept bringing out more papers that he certainly would not want to have to explain in a grievance hearing. The problem was resolved before the grievance process was discussed. He agreed and went off to get the grade-change form. I offered to wait and deliver it. So we hand-carried the paper to the credentials office and picked up the paperwork from the university saying that Sheila's credential application was in process.

Blind students everywhere need to learn and remember how crucial it is to read every word on important documents. Do not assume anything without reading it. Keep copies of everything, and make sure that your records match those of the university. I hope Sheila's experience will teach others to minimize the chances of having an experience like hers. I am confident that she at least will be more assertive in future if she notices that policies are being altered to her detriment.