Queens, New York resident Rosemary Powell enrolled her 5-year-old daughter into Public School 290 in September 2011. Launched in 2010, PS 290 Academy for Scholars was a welcome relief from the overcrowded Maspeth neighborhood schools. On the first day, Principal Mieasa Harris informed parents that students would be required to wear a uniform of khaki pants/bottoms and a green shirt. The uniform requirement ended up being difficult for Ms. Powell’s daughter to follow.
Ms. Powell’s daughter suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, having been diagnosed at the age of two. Onset of OCD usually occurs in teens and adults, but a small percentage of children do manifest systems. The medical disorder causes repetitive, unpleasant thoughts (obsessions) or behaviors (compulsions) that are difficult to control. In the case of H.H., Ms. Powell’s daughter, the wearing of certain clothing can cause her great discomfort at times and makes her unable to wear them. This is a common manifestation of OCD, where certain clothing or materials feel uncomfortable and feel restrictive.
When she refused to wear the clothing, Ms. Powell attempted to have H.H. wear similar clothing in terms of colors, but more often than not, H.H. would not wear the uniform. Principal Harris would then single out H.H., pulled her out of class, and reprimanded her for not wearing her uniform. She would even meet the girl at the bus in the morning and ask her in front of other students why she was not in uniform.
Ms. Powell requested a meeting with Principal Harris when her daughter repeatedly came home crying after being yelled at by the principal. Harris demanded that Ms. Powell bring H.H. to the meeting. It was at that time Ms. Powell explained her daughter’s disability and requested that if she had issues with her daughter not wearing the uniform to please speak with her instead of publicly humiliating her daughter. Principal Harris reportedly responded, “If you would make your daughter wear her uniform, we would not need this meeting.”
One thing Principal Harris did not do was inform Ms. Powell that she had the right to opt out of her daughter wearing the uniform. The school had a form with which they would request an exemption from the uniform requirement. When Ms. Powell returned with medical documentation of her daughter’s disability, Principal Harris still refused to accommodate H.H. and told Ms. Powell that if her daughter did not wear the uniform, she would have to transfer to a more appropriate school.
The following year, Ms. Powell H.H. participated in the Girl Scouts troupe at the school. The Girls Scouts were willing to work with her regarding H.H.’s OCD and did not require her to wear the uniform. Principal Harris, however, banned H.H. from participating in the Girl Scouts, claiming that since she had worn her uniform less than ten times in the previous school year, she would not be allowed to participate in the program. When the CEO of Girl Scouts of America wrote a letter to Principal Harris disagreeing with her decision to remove H.H. from the program, Harris canceled the Girl Scouts program for the entire school. This caused further problems for H.H., as all of the families knew why the program had been canceled.
In a lawsuit filed this month in Brooklyn, Ms. Powell claims that after all of this, Principal Harris concealed the fact that she had an option to opt out of the uniform and continued to berate her daughter, often times shaking her finger in the young girl’s face, telling her “You better wear your uniform tomorrow.”
Ms. Powell’s suit seeks an injunction and unspecified monetary damages for discrimination, violations of her daughter’s civil rights, and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires reasonable accommodation in all public institutions for persons with disabilities.
Ms. Powell also filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s office of civil rights which ruled after an investigation that Principal Harris exceeded her authority by removing H.H. from the girl scouts.
There has been no response yet from the school.