The Chicago Employment Law Blog

Fired Teacher Sues CPS for Racial and Disability Discrimination

Let’s pull out that old cliché about smoke and fire. This is the fourth lawsuit to be filed by a former teacher from George Washington High School since now-retired principal Florence Gonzales took over the school and instituted sweeping changes that left many teachers unemployed and the racial composition of the school drastically altered.

This lawsuit, filed by formerly tenured teacher Michelle Nelson, alleged that she was fired because she is black. A district spokesperson told the Sun-Times that Nelson was fired for cause. What was that cause? She was sleeping at her ex-husband’s house, outside of Chicago, to care for her disabled and wheelchair-bound son.

When Gonzales was hired, one of her first changes, according to the lawsuit, was to end the "Options for Knowledge" program, which bussed black students into the otherwise predominately Hispanic school. The black population of the school plummeted from 26.6 percent to 7.4 percent, while other schools in the area had shifts of only about 1 percent per year.

Other racially-charged allegations include sworn statements from other personnel that claim that Principal Gonzales used racial epithets in their presence. The lawsuit also claims that in her first two years at the school, every expelled student was black. During her third and fourth years, 71 percent were black, despite the previously cited declining demographic presence.

As for the issue of residency, CPS rules require teachers to maintain residency in Chicago. Nelson split with her husband in 2003. He moved outside of Chicago, to South Holland. Nelson moved in with her daughter, who resided in Chicago. When her son became disabled in 2009, he resided with his father in South Holland because the home was wheelchair accessible.

Nelson spent many nights at that home caring for her son, while simultaneously refurbishing and making wheelchair accessible a different residence in Chicago. In the meantime, she claims that her mailing address and personal belongings stayed at her daughter's address.

During all of this, a CPS investigator was apparently tracking her sleeping habits.

In 2010, she was in a car accident while handing work-related business. She was awarded worker's compensation, temporary disability pay, and medical leave. Within weeks of her accident, and while she was on leave, CPS had a hearing to determine her residency and terminate her employment. She was unable to attend due to her severe injuries.

This lawsuit, at least per the complaint, is made up of a lot of smoke. Nelson is arguing that race and her temporary disability were the true motivators behind her termination. Most racial discrimination cases are proven with circumstantial evidence (the smoke) that points to an overall pattern of discrimination (the fire). After all, discriminators rarely write out their prejudices in convenient, long-hand narrative form.

Here, we have a change in policies that led to a dramatic impact on the black population of the school, as well as alleged racist statements, and a number of teachers filing similar lawsuits. As far as circumstantial discrimination lawsuits go, this one seems to have more smoke than most.

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