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Principal Tried to Bar Blind Counselor's Seeing Eye Dog, Complaint Says

By Katie Honan | October 16, 2014 7:29am
 Tami Hernandez-Rosenberg was given extra work and told she couldn't have her guide dog, she said. 
Principal Discriminated Against Blind Guidance Counselor, Complaint Says
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BROOKLYN — A blind counselor was discriminated against by the principal of an East Flatbush school who tried to bar her seeing eye dog from her workplace, according to a complaint and the Department of Education.

Tami Hernandez-Rosenberg, 46, of Queens, started teaching in 1993 and became a guidance counselor at I.S. 285 in 2001. Three years later, after brain surgery, she was left legally blind and suffered partial paralysis on her left side, she said.

But she continued to work as a guidance counselor with assistance from school aides, a special computer and other tools, she said.

In 2011, she tore her rotator cuff, making it hard to use a cane. The injury made her eligible for a seeing eye dog.

She trained with Lonnie, a black Lab, in the summer and brought him to school in August to meet with her principal, Frederick Underwood, according to the complaint with the city's Commission on Human Rights filed by Borrelli & Associates in September.

“They all knew I was getting a service animal — I made it very clear to everyone that I was coming back with a guide dog in September," she said.

She also received the necessary paperwork through the state Department of Education, which granted her the medical waiver for the pooch.

“Mr. Underwood was not happy about having the dog in the building," she said.

According to the complaint, the principal allegedly told her "I don't want that dog in this school."

But he was advised by the Guide Dog Foundation that guide dogs must be allowed to accompany those who need them in public places under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the complaint said.

The dog stayed by her side and sat behind her during counseling sessions, she said. She even held an assembly to teach the middle schoolers about Lonnie.

But Underwood began to treat Hernandez-Rosenberg "adversely," the complaint states. 

She was assigned additional duties in 2011 that went above and beyond her job as guidance counselor, including student government adviser, ACS liaison and elementary school recruiter, she said.

She assisted students with high school applications and was even part of the building's response team during emergencies.

“My job — I don’t know why I was chosen — was to go around and get all the kids with medical issues in an emergency drill," she said.

“I’m blind! Yes, I had a para who read the list off and collected the kids. But there are two other guidance counselors who can see.”

Underwood also began switching up her work schedule, which forced her to retrain Lonnie, the complaint said.

In 2013, he removed her from the air-conditioned room she requires for her health and also switched the para-professionals that had been working with her, according to the complaint.

Underwood told her he could "do what he pleased," the complaint said.

Later that year he told the paras working with Hernandez-Rosenberg that they could no longer write for her, telling them they were only supposed to read for her. This made her job more difficult, she said. 

And when she told Underwood she couldn't do some of the additional duties because of her disabilities, he wrote her up for insubordination, the complaint said. 

The stress from the situation caused her to have a bleeding ulcer last April, she said. In June 2014 she was removed from her assignment at the school — but she still reports to I.S. 285 each day while waiting for another role. 

She sits alone in the media center and has gone on one interview this fall.

“It’s isolating. It’s humiliating,” she said of her situation. “It’s sad.”

Underwood, though, denied the allegations in the complaint and said he couldn't prevent the dog from entering the school since it's not up to him.

He was supportive of Lonnie and said Hernandez-Rosenberg sent memos thanking him for holding a school assembly on the guide dog, which he felt fostered an "inclusive" environment.

"We did that which was above and beyond what we had to do," he said. "We complied to all her accommodations."

He also said she requested additional leadership roles, which is why she was assigned the other responsibilities.

Underwood said the complaint is a "contradiction to what took place" and said he was forced to let teachers and Hernandez-Rosenberg go after lower enrollment cut his budget and staff. 

"I think she believes it's some correlation between what we feel about her," he said. "We also had to let go of teachers."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said the agency "cannot comment on this matter as it is currently the subject of litigation."

Hernandez-Rosenberg said she hopes to find work closer to her Howard Beach home, but also wants her former principal to recognize what he did to her.

"I told him, you wouldn't take crutches away from someone with a broken leg," she said.