The Washington Post

Blind teacher ordered rehired in “sad and troubling case”

The exams Denise Hamilton had to pass to win her teacher certification weren’t available in Braille. Someone had to read them to her. Same for the letters from DCPS warning the soft-spoken Jamaica native that she faced termination on Aug. 1, 2008 unless she completed her certification.

On July 28th of that year, she said, she walked her test scores, transcript and money order into OSSE’s certification office. But DCPS didn’t get the official word before it fired Hamilton, who taught visually impaired students at Sharpe Health Center.

That triggered what arbitrator Paul Greenberg --who has ordered Hamilton reinstated with back pay-- called “a very troubling and sad case.” Instead of walking back an obvious mistake, Greenberg said, DCPS went to court and then arbitration in a three-year quest to justify its original decision.

“Instead of fixing the situation promptly and correcting a personnel action that it surely realized would not be sustained if judged on its merits, DCPS invested several years and substantial taxpayer funds defending its decision,”Greenberg wrote. “In addition to consuming city resources, the litigation no doubt has consumed substantial resources for the union, not to mention the hardship imposed on Grievant herself.”

Her work record was not an issue, said Brenda Zwack, the attorney who handled her case for WTU. “There was no assertion that she was a bad teacher,” Zwack said.

“Ms. Hamilton is a fantastic teacher who was treated badly by the District of Columbia,” said Washington Teachers’ Union president Nathan Saunders, who announced Greenberg’s April 29 decision at a Wednesday afternoon press conference with Hamilton.

The Hamilton case seems especially baffling, Saunders said, because it comes at a time with DCPS is trying to increase its capacity to serve special-needs students.

DCPS spokeswoman Safiya Simmons said the District is reviewing the decision “and considering whether an appeal is appropriate.”

Hamilton, 44, was a student at the Salvation Army School for the Blind in Jamaica when she decided she wanted to be a teacher. In 2001, after coming to the U.S. and earning degrees from Montgomery College and the University of Maryland, she landed a job in DCPS teaching visually impaired children at Birney Elementary.

Zwack acknowledged that if the District does elect to appeal, the case could continue to drag on for years. Saunders said he has asked Mayor Vincent C. Gray to order Hamilton’s reinstatement

For her part, Hamilton said, she just wants to get back to her students. She has not worked steadily since her 2008 dismissal.

”I look forward to going back to work and picking up where I left off,” she said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.


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