Ohio teacher sues school district over child-phobia ‘disability’

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A 61-year-old high school teacher has filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against a suburban Cincinnati school district. Her disability? She has a phobia of young children, The Cincinnati Enquirer reports.

Maria C. Waltherr-Willard, a French and Spanish teacher who was employed by the Mariemont school district for 35 years, alleges that the discrimination occurred primarily in 2010, when the district reassigned her from high school to junior high. The suit also claims the district wanted her to resign because of her age.

The alleged disability is pedophobia, an irrational fear or dislike of children. While unusual, it has been officially recognized as anxiety disorder by psychiatrists.

In her complaint, Waltherr-Willard says she has suffered from an extreme fear or anxiety around young children since the 1990s, reports The Enquirer. The suit also claims that school district officials had promised the veteran teacher and her attorney that she wouldn’t be required to teach young children.

Bradford Weber, the attorney for Waltherr-Willard, has submitted numerous documents in the case. Among the documents are explanations by psychiatrists, psychologists and the plaintiff’s medical doctor concerning the phobia. Alleged symptoms the presence of young children cause in Waltherr-Willard include chest pains, vomiting, stress, anxiety, high blood pressure and nightmares.

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

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

Students at Mariemont Junior High School typically range from 12 to 14 years of age.

Adler, who has never had Waltherr-Willard as a patient, told The Enquirer that specific phobias are frequently treated with a combination of behavioral therapy and anti-anxiety medications.

According to some studies, between roughly four and nine percent of all people have some phobia. Of that estimated group, a very low percentage seeks mental health treatment. 

Waltherr-Willard, a native of Cuba, immigrated to the United States in 1969 at the age of 18. She began working in the Mariemont school district in 1976 as a French and Spanish teacher.

As far back as 1997, the district requested that Waltherr-Willard teach Spanish enrichment classes to fourth, fifth and sixth graders. After she and her attorney raised objections, citing her condition, the school district agreed to allow her to teach only high school students.

In 2009, when it was rumored that the district would replace traditional French courses with online courses at the high school, Waltherr-Willard rallied support among parents, The Enquirer explains. District officials responded by reprimanding her.

In her current lawsuit, Waltherr-Willard alleges that her transfer to the local junior high school during the 2010-11 school year to teach Spanish to seventh and eighth graders was retaliation for her actions in 2009.

By January 2011, Waltherr-Willard’s lawsuit claims, her blood pressure was frequently reaching dangerously high levels. She asked, in writing, to teach at the high school again but this request was denied.

Waltherr-Willard retired in 2011. At the time, The Enquirer notes, she was making approximately $84,000 a year.

In July 2011, the retired teacher filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. After this complaint was dismissed in March 2012, she became eligible to sue the Mariemont school district, which she did in June.

Last week, a federal judge dismissed three of the six total claims in Waltherr-Willard’s lawsuit. District Judge Herman J. Weber ruled that the district acted properly under the contract between the school district and the teachers’ union. He added that Waltherr-Willard would still have her job if she had not retired.

The judge did not render a decision concerning the three remaining claims. The trial — if there is a trial — is scheduled for February 2014.

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Eric Owens