by Jamie A. Hope
The mother of a 10th grade student says the superintendent of Riverview Community Schools has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to exempt her special needs daughter from a face mask mandate.
She says the superintendent refused a request for an exemption from the requirement, even though he received a doctor’s note stating her child is unable to wear a mask. She says the superintendent is further violating the ADA by not offering acceptable solutions and allowing her daughter to return for the current school year.
The student has numerous breathing issues and will have surgery this month to correct some of them. She also has been diagnosed with severe anxiety, which is triggered when she is singled out in any way.
The mother says Russell E. Pickell (pictured above), the Riverview superintendent, attempted to have her sign a medical waiver to give him access to her daughter’s medical records. He also, she says, requested a Zoom meeting with the doctor, which he did not attend, though a school staffer did.
The student’s physician, Dr. James Neuenschwander, sent an email to Michigan Capitol Confidential, in which he stated that the Zoom meeting he attended did not include the school superintendent or the student’s teacher.
“The entire process was ridiculous,” Neuenschwander wrote. “They suggested that they would accommodate [the student’s] mask exemption by putting her in a plexiglass cubicle — harmful and with no evidence of preventing transmission.”
After denying the doctor’s request that the district grant the student a medical exemption, the superintendent offered two proposals instead. One was for the student to wear a face shield, surrounded in plexiglass in the back of the classroom; the other was for her to do school online.
Maria Giancotti, a special education consultant working with the family, says these option will not work for the student. They will, she says, single her out and trigger her anxiety. She must attend in-person classes, according to Giancotti. Her individualized educational program is designed to give her specialized instruction and learning consistent with her disability.
“This is a student that wants to be in school,” she says. “Not being in school has elevated her anxiety. She is worried about how she will make up six weeks of missed schoolwork when she already struggles academically, and how this will impact her ability to graduate on time with her peers. This situation has exacerbated her anxiety and was completely unnecessary. If Riverview School District had offered appropriate accommodations based on her individual medical diagnoses and followed her doctor’s recommendations she would be in school. School districts should have no ability to supersede the determination and recommendations of a medical doctor. Their actions violate the IDEA, Section 504 and the ADA and they need to be held accountable for that.”
The ADA states, in part: “No qualified individual with a disability shall, on the basis of disability, 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 public entity.”
Section 504 of the ADA was created to level the playing field and to “eliminate impediments to full participation by persons with disabilities,” according to The Child Advocate. The organization says the ADA was intended to prevent any kind of discrimination against people with disabilities.
Michigan Capitol Confidential received permission from the student’s mother to ask the superintendent about her request for a medical exemption. In an email response, he states:
“The Riverview Community School District can not, and will not, discuss individual students and requests for accommodations. When an accommodation is requested for any student, whether under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act Section 504, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, said requests are taken very seriously. In each instance, the District may undertake the ADA’s interactive process and/or review or develop Section 504 Plans or Individualized Education Programs.”
Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, said schools are under a great deal of pressure to keep schools safe.
“These are enormously stressful times, but it is important that in these times schools and school administrators do not lose sight of the fact that there are individual children with serious health, behavioral, mental health and learning needs that will test us all to come up with solutions that ensure all children have access to educational opportunities,” Stone-Palmquist said in an email. “In addition to accommodations, we seriously and most immediately need to look at how we are working with students and families to remove barriers, not add more.”
– – –
Jamie A. Hope is a reporter for Michigan Capitol Confidential.
Photo “Russell Pickell” by Riverview Community School District.