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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Pittsburgh Teacher’s Bias Claims Pick Up Steam

PITTSBURGH (CN) - A federal judge's mistake in identifying a former school official does not require dismissal of a discrimination case against the school district, she found.

Ruth Hendricks, a former substitute and special education teacher, brought the lawsuit after Pittsburgh Public Schools fired her in 2011.

In Hendricks' two years with the district, it allegedly put her on two performance improvement plans though school families and fellow teachers praised her work.

U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer found this past September that Hendricks might have a case for racial discrimination.

The ruling quotes allegations that Leah-Rae Bivins, described in the ruling as a vice principal at the district's Faison Primary Campus, criticized the job that Hendricks could do as a white teacher with primarily black students.

"Some people aren't made for the hood," Bivins allegedly told Hendricks.

Judge Fischer did grant the district summary judgment on Hendricks' hostile work environment and retaliation claims, but the district soon pointed out an error in the ruling.

It noted that Bivins "played no role (and was not even an administrator at Faison)" in the year that Hendricks received her first unsatisfactory rating and was placed on her first "improvement plan."

Judge Fischer agreed to amend the inaccurate description in the prior ruling of Bivins as a vice principal.

Correction of this factual error does not, however, undermine the racial-discrimination claim, the Feb. 10 ruling states.

"In this court's estimation, the record supports plaintiff's contention that Ms. Bivins was plaintiff's superior during the 2010-2011 school year, did conduct observations, and did recommend her for the second unsatisfactory rating," Fischer wrote. "Despite defendant's argument that Ms. Bivins 'had no involvement in Plaintiff's first EIP and unsatisfactory rating' and that Ms. Hoover was the primary observer during both years in question, Ms. Bivins' name is listed on the 'Administrator' line at the bottom of a Student Behavior Referral dated December 3, 2009."

Indeed Hendricks, who kept a diary of all workplace interactions after her first written warning, believed that Bivens was out to get her and had planned all along to put the teacher on a second EIP that would result in a second unsatisfactory rating and thus termination.

Hendricks has also claimed that the majority of her fellow teachers were black and has highlighted racially offensive comments Bivens allegedly made.

Notes that the teacher kept state that: "'Ms. Bivins' said it was a natural tendency for blacks especially to keep a tight rein on their children when company comes. She could not comment on white homes since she was not raised on one. She stated that in her home you better do what mom says and then stated 'sisters' know what I mean."

Judge Fischer also declined to reconsider letting the discrimination claim against the district advance on the basis that it is Hendricks' word against theirs.

"Although the other teachers and supervisors may not recall the 'hood' comment or other allegedly discriminatory acts by Ms. Bivins, this court will not reconsider its denial of summary judgment based on such lack of recollection, as it creates a jury question," the ruling states.

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