Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Melissa Ross has been awarded $205,506 by a federal jury because, she says, she was wrongly fired because she is black. The jury agreed that Melissa Ross of Jackson was fired because of her race. The jury did not find that officials at the school had retaliated against her.
Though she had asked for $500,000, the jury awarded Ross $40,506 for back pay and benefits, and $165,000 for pain and suffering, according to the verdict returned Tuesday. The state plans to appeal state attorney general office’s spokeswoman Jan Schaefer said in an email. Tom Burnham, state superintendent of education, said in a statement that he and the state Board of Education “are disappointed in the outcome and are weighing our options. We will have no further comment at this time.” Ross, who now works at Jim Hill High School, and her attorney, Michael Brown, could not be reached for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Ross was hired at the school as a special education teacher for Family Consumer Science. According to the lawsuit, she was not proficient in sign language at the time but was working to improve. In a 2007 complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Ross said she had been hired in August 2006 and was promoted with a raise in February 2007. But in May of 2007, she was given a bad evaluation because she was not proficient in sign language and was told she would be fired that July, according to the complaint. Also in the complaint, Ross pointed out six black teachers were fired effective July 2007. “To my knowledge there was a white male teacher on probation who was not discharged,” Ross said.
Concerns about teachers at the school not being proficient enough in sign language bubbled over on Nov. 28, 2006. About 20 high school students and some teachers protested that four of their 26 teachers were not proficient in sign language. That year, then-state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds told The Clarion-Ledger his staff had been looking into the incident and the situation shouldn’t have escalated to the point of a walkout.
He also noted there was a statewide shortage of about 1,700 teachers, and it had been difficult to find teachers who could sign proficiently. That number had doubled by 2008.