A former high school teacher is accusing school district administrators of discriminating against her because of a rare phobia she says she has: a fear of young children.
Maria Waltherr-Willard, 61, had been teaching Spanish and French at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati since 1976.
Waltherr-Willard, who does not have children of her own, said that when she was transferred to the district's middle school in 2009, the seventh- and eighth-graders triggered her phobia, causing her blood pressure to soar and forcing her to retire in the middle of the 2010-2011 school year.
In her lawsuit against the district, filed in federal court in Cincinnati, Waltherr-Willard said that her fear of young children falls under the federal American with Disabilities Act and that the district violated it by transferring her in the first place and then refusing to allow her to return to the high school.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
Gary Winters, the school district's attorney, said Tuesday that Waltherr-Willard was transferred because the French program at the high school was being turned into an online one and that the middle school needed a Spanish teacher.
“She wants money,” Winters said of Walter-Willard's motivation to sue. “Let's keep in mind that our goal here is to provide the best teachers for students and the best academic experience for students, which certainly wasn't accomplished by her walking out on them in the middle of the year.”
Waltherr-Willard and her attorney, Brad Weber, did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Winters also denied Walter-Willard's claim that the district transferred her out of retaliation for her unauthorized comments to parents about the French program ending – “the beginning of a deliberate, systematic and calculated effort to squeeze her out of a job altogether,” Weber wrote in a July 2011 letter to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The lawsuit said that Waltherr-Willard has been treated for her phobia since 1991 and also suffers from general anxiety disorder, high blood pressure and a gastrointestinal illness. She was managing her conditions well until the transfer, according to the lawsuit.
Working with the younger students adversely affected Waltherr-Willard's health, the lawsuit said.
She was “unable to control her blood pressure, which was so high at times that it posed a stroke risk,” according to the lawsuit, which includes a statement from her doctor about her high blood pressure. “The mental anguish suffered by (Waltherr-Willard) is serious and of a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure the same.”
The lawsuit was filed in June and is set to go to trial in February 2014. A judge last week dismissed three of the ex-teacher's claims, but left discrimination claims standing.
The lawsuit says that Waltherr-Willard has lost out on at least $100,000 of potential income as a result of her retirement.
Winters said that doesn't make sense, considering that Waltherr-Willard's take from retirement is 89 percent of what her annual salary was, which was around $80,000.
Patrick McGrath, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders near Chicago, said that he has treated patients who have fears involving children and that anyone can be afraid of anything.
“A lot of people will look at something someone's afraid of and say, `There is no rational reason to be afraid of that,“’ he said. “But anxiety disorders are emotion-based. … We've had mothers who wouldn't touch their children after they're born.”
He said most phobias begin with people asking themselves, “What if?” and then imagining the worst-case scenario.
“You can make an association to something and be afraid of it,” McGrath said. “If you get a phone call that your mom was just in a horrible accident as you're locking the door, you can make an association that bad news comes if you don't lock the door right. It's a basic case of conditioning.”