The students in Alison Yowell's seventh-grade English class made stickers of support when she told them she had just learned her cancer had returned.
"They wrote on the sticker someone they knew who died of cancer -- or who survived cancer," said Yowell, who wore the emblems on her T-shirt in a fundraising walk before returning them to the students, many of whom stuck them to their notebooks.
English teacher Alison Yowell requested a four-month leave without pay while she underwent cancer treatment but was told she hadn't been in her position at River Bend Middle School in Sterling long enough to be eligible.
(River Bend Middle School)
But top Loudoun County Public Schools officials, Yowell said, have had a less compassionate response to her Hodgkin's disease: They forced her from her job.
The case has focused attention on a school district whose leaders often cite the difficulty of recruiting enough qualified teachers to serve students in the nation's fastest-growing county.
Patsy Layer, director of the Loudoun Education Association, which represents teachers, said school administrators notified Yowell that she must resign, or face firing, because she had used all her sick days. As a recent hire, Yowell was ineligible to request leave without pay.
Layer recommended that Yowell, 31, resign before being terminated to avoid marring her teaching record. She submitted her resignation last week, effective today.
"In a case similar to this, we would always offer the opportunity to resign so there is no sense they are being 'fired.' Their record would be clear," said Loudoun School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III.
Critics said Yowell's treatment is a reflection of rigid leave policies heartlessly applied, and they warned that it could hurt efforts to hire top talent in the Washington region's highly competitive market for teachers. School officials said the uniform application of personnel rules is a cornerstone of management that benefits the system and its students.
Yowell said she knew Loudoun policies when she was hired.
"I know what they've done is completely legal," Yowell said. "I don't feel this policy is ethical."
School Board member Priscilla B. Godfrey (Blue Ridge), who chairs the committee that oversees personnel issues, said the district views matters differently.
"As an employer, you have to watch out for yourself," Godfrey said. "To her, it would be an unethical result. But legally, if you have a policy on your books, everyone is treated the same, and everybody has to toe the line, whatever that line may be. Otherwise, it's not a policy."
In September, doctors told Yowell, whose cancer was declared in remission in early 2004, that her cancer had returned.
"The doctors had been pretty confident I would not have to deal with this again," Yowell said. "Unfortunately, they are not always right."
She began taking days off for preliminary treatment. Once she used up the 10 annual sick days allotted to teachers in her position, as well as three personal days, school officials told her she'd be asked to resign, she said.
In November, Yowell requested a four-month leave without pay for a debilitating course of medical treatment that would leave her vulnerable to infection. She volunteered to keep preparing lesson plans and grading papers while receiving her chemotherapy drips and stem cell transplants.
But Loudoun officials, citing Yowell's recent hiring -- she started in August -- said no. According to district policy, employees must be on the job for 90 days to be eligible for unpaid leave. "This requirement has not been met resulting in a denial of your request," wrote Assistant Superintendent Sue Hurd.
Layer said it was wrong to force Yowell, or any other teacher, to choose "between protecting their career or getting treatment for a serious illness."
Yowell, who grew up in Fauquier County and has family in Loudoun, had taught at a tough, low-income high school in Pasadena, Calif., before landing in Loudoun.
"It is, in every other sense, an exceptional county to work for," she said. But, she added, "new teachers need to realize this can happen to them."
Some area school districts, including those in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, make no similar distinction between new and longtime employees regarding leave policies.
Loudoun's Hatrick said his district provides many attractive benefits, including the ability to save unlimited sick days, that prospective employees should consider.
"I've been able to accumulate over 500 days of sick leave I have not used," Hatrick said. "That's a huge benefit."
The county also has a sick leave bank, Hatrick noted. Employees who donate two sick days can use up to 50 of those communal days a year, he said. However, that policy requires that a person first take 30 consecutive days of their own sick or other leave before being allowed to pull from the bank.
Yowell was not a member of the sick leave bank. But she wouldn't have been able to benefit from it anyway because she wasn't given enough leave to access the bank.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants 12 unpaid weeks per year, applies only after an employee has worked a full year.
Hatrick said Loudoun's benefits have financial limits. "What we're trying to do is be as compassionate and helpful as we can be. But we're also mindful of the fact that we're employing someone to do a very important job, namely to teach children, and they can't do that if they're not there," Hatrick said.
He added that the district routinely offers to rehire people in Yowell's position.
Cindy Giese, another seventh-grade English teacher at River Bend Middle School in Sterling, watched Yowell at work.
"I have been extremely, extremely impressed," said Giese, 48. "Her students really appreciate the job she does, which is quite a compliment coming from seventh-graders. She really is a terrific teacher, and in this day of teacher shortages, it just seems unreasonable, and lacking foresight, to force her out."
Giese, who has spent 14 of her 25 years as a teacher in Loudoun, said she doubted that Yowell would be back.
"If you can stop and imagine yourself as a young, excited teacher, eager to do her very best for her students, and she's hit by an illness like this -- it's really difficult to have confidence in a county that has let you go in a manner lacking compassion," Giese said.
Yowell said she's not ready to say whether she'd want to return. "At this point, I'm not trying to get my job back," she said. She's also struggling with how to prepare for questions that could come from her former students.
"If they ask me, 'Why aren't you coming back?' I don't know what's appropriate to tell them. But I don't want them to think my prognosis has changed. My prognosis was good, and it still is," she said. "My mom had the same disease 22 years ago, and she's doing great. That's encouraging to me."