CLAYTON — After a legal tussle with a former teacher assistant, the Johnston County school system has softened a policy that barred people with disabilities from certain jobs.
Patricia Bordonaro, 47, was a teacher assistant for 17 years, four of those in Johnston County. But the school system fired her in 2011 when she could no longer drive a school bus, a requirement for employment as a teacher assistant.
At the time, Bordonaro, who lives in Archer Lodge, was an assistant in a Clayton High School class for students with learning disabilities. She drove a bus when needed.
In 2009, two years after joining the Clayton High staff, Bordonaro was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She lost vision in one eye, and her doctor said it was no longer safe for her to drive a school bus. For two years, Bordonaro provided the school with a medical exemption to the driving requirement, serving instead as a bus monitor. But in 2011, four days before graduation, Clayton High fired her.
“All of a sudden, because I lost vision in one of my eyes, I’m not allowed to teach a child anymore,” Bordonaro said.
She sued the school system in federal court. Last month, she reached a settlement that gives her two years’ pay, or about $50,000.
But for Bordonaro, it wasn’t about the money. “It has to do with the rights of people with disabilities being employed and being treated the same as everyone else,” she said.
School superintendent Ed Croom declined an interview. In a statement delivered via email, he said, in a statement “This matter has been fairly resolved for all parties.”
Because she was healthy until the brain tumor, Bordonaro said, she had never encountered an obstacle to employment. “I didn’t think about what it was like being disabled until I walked in their shoes,” she said of students in her class at Clayton High.
One of her students wanted to work in the cafeteria at Clayton High. But the school system policy that cost Bordonaro her job also required cafeteria workers and custodians to drive buses if needed.
“My job was to help train these students to get jobs, but then the school doesn’t employ them,” Bordonaro said.
But under the settlement Bordonaro reached with the schools, that Clayton High student could get a cafeteria job. Under the revised policy, the superintendent will review the number of bus drivers needed and provide exemptions to the bus-driving rule if he can ensure that the schools will still have an adequate roster of drivers.
Lisa Grafstein is an attorney for Disability Rights NC, which represented Bordonaro. She said the group was pleased with the settlement.
“What we were trying to do is come up with a change in policy that would not exclude people with disabilities from jobs and would compensate her,” Grafstein said.
Grafstein said she was confident the disabled would able to land jobs in the Johnston schools.
Bordonaro said, “I’m happy other disabled people will not have to go through the heartache and the hardship I went through – the loss of wages, loss of insurance, the stress it put on my family.”
She still spends time with her former students and their families, taking them on outings such as a trip to the State Fair.
“Once they build that trust with you, it doesn’t go away,” she said.
But Bordonaro will not be trying her to get her old job back. As part of the settlement, she agreed not to seek reinstatement.
Instead, Bordonaro is a student at Wake Technical Community College and hopes to become a special education teacher. She plans to apply to teach in Wake County.