This week's cover story, "A Hard Line," looks deeper into complaints against a Westminster charter school called the Ricardo Flores Magon Academy. One former teacher is now suing the school, claiming she was discriminated against and then fired in 2009 after she called in sick with the swine flu, which she believes she caught from a student.
And that's not all.
The former teacher, a woman named Claudia Mitchell, started working at RFMA on August 14, 2009. It was her first teaching job. A Denver native, Mitchell, forty, worked as a project manager before she decided to switch careers. Though she didn't have a teaching degree, she began looking for jobs online, which is where she found an ad for the gig at RFMA. No degree was required.
"It seemed like an awesome opportunity to be able to work with Hispanic kids," says Mitchell, who is Hispanic herself. "I thought, what a great way to give back to my community." She says she answered the ad on a Sunday, had an interview the next morning and was hired on Tuesday.
Toward the end of the interview, however, the school administrators -- Marcos Martinez and Antonio Vigil -- posed an odd question. "They asked me about, what would I tell the children if they found out I was married to a white man?" she says. She told them that her husband is Irish and the Irish had struggled, too.
"It didn't really raise any red flags," she says. "I guess I thought it was more or less for the teaching position, like how would you handle yourself?"
She started work the following day. That's when Martinez, the head of school, stopped by her classroom. "He comes in and he says, 'Well, we're going to call you Mrs. M,'" she says. "I thought it was odd." But again, she didn't question it. She figured "Mitchell" might be too hard for some Spanish-speaking students to pronounce. At that time, she didn't know he'd asked other teachers with Anglo last names to go by their maiden names or initials, too -- or, in one case, the teacher's mother's maiden name.
But as time went on, more red flags popped up. Mitchell claims she was given very little direction from Martinez and Vigil. The second day of work, she was left alone with her first- and second-grade students. The classrooms was dark and tiny, she says, and the school didn't provide her with the proper teaching materials, including storybooks. The bathrooms were dirty, she adds, and the school lunches were sub-par.
Mitchell says she raised concerns about the conditions but was largely ignored.
On November 23, 2009, one of Mitchell's students came to school ill. The little girl, who had recently moved to Denver from Mexico, had a high fever and her face was flushed. RFMA had no nurse's office then and administrators insisted Mitchell keep in the girl in her classroom because her mother couldn't be reached. To stop the girl from spreading germs, they gave her a doctor's mask, but it was too big and slid off her small face.
Mitchell warned Martinez and Vigil that she had asthma, which tended to exacerbate any sickness she caught. If she caught H1N1, she told them, she could be out of school for a while. Still, they insisted the girl stay in Mitchell's classroom.
Mitchell did indeed come down with H1N1 and was sick over the Thanksgiving break. The weekend before school was set to start again, she e-mailed Martinez to let him know she had a doctor's appointment on Monday and would likely be too sick to work. At first, he protested and told her that he was expecting her on Monday, sick or not. And when Mitchell landed in the hospital on Monday due to breathing problems, he wrote her an e-mail telling her not to come back for the rest of the school year.
Mitchell is suing Martinez and the school for discrimination. She believes they treated her differently because she is married to a white man and uses his last name. She also claims they failed to accommodate her disability: asthma.
Read Mitchell's lawsuit below. The school responded to her complaint, denying all of the allegations. The matter has been set for trial in September 2012.
More from our Follow That Story archives: "Ricardo Flores Magon Academy: Why was embattled charter school named for anarchist writer?"
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