The Tro­caire case: How much aid do learn­ing-dis­abled stu­dents de­serve?

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Trombly

Christie Na­wo­jski failed two nurs­ing classes at Tro­caire Col­lege. No one dis­putes that.

She flunked the first in 2014. That hap­pened be­fore a psy­chol­o­gist di­ag­nosed her with a read­ing dis­or­der. For the two semesters af­ter that, with spe­cial ac­com­mo­da­tions, she passed all her classes.

But then she failed again. And that got her kicked out of the pri­vate Catholic col­lege in South Buf­falo.

Like most lo­cal nurs­ing pro­grams, Tro­caire has a two-and-done rule: Fail two re­quired cour­ses, and the col­lege dis­misses you.

Now, the 43-year-old Cheek­towaga woman has filed a com­plaint against Tro­caire with the state Di­vi­sion of Hu­man Rights, which has found prob­a­ble cause the col­lege dis­crim­i­nated against her.

Na­wo­jski had asked the col­lege to re­in­state her, say­ing her first failed class shouldn’t count against her be­cause, without a di­ag­no­sis, she lacked ac­com­mo­da­tions that would’ve helped her pass. Af­ter the col­lege said no, she went to the state, con­tend­ing she failed the sec­ond course be-

cause the col­lege de­nied her a tu­tor.

The col­lege, in turn, has filed a le­gal ac­tion in State Supreme Court to block the di­vi­sion from get­ting in­volved. Tro­caire con­tends the Di­vi­sion of Hu­man Rights lacks ju­ris­dic­tion over how a col­lege han­dles the aca­demic stand­ing of a stu­dent. And even if it did, the col­lege said it pro­vided Na­wo­jski with all the ser­vices she was en­ti­tled.

“Be­cause (her) psy­chol­o­gist did not rec­om­mend tu­tor­ing as an ac­com­mo­da­tion re­quired for her dis­abil­ity, (she) had no le­gal en­ti­tle­ment to tu­tor­ing and Tro­caire had no le­gal obli­ga­tion to pro­vide it,” James R. Grasso, who rep­re­sents the school, said in court pa­pers filed in Septem­ber 2016. Both par­ties de­clined to com­ment. Na­wo­jski’s case of­fers a bi­fo­cal look at two is­sues that could have im­pli­ca­tions for higher ed­u­ca­tion lo­cally and be­yond: How much help, by law, must a col­lege of­fer a per­son with a learn­ing dis­abil­ity, and to what ex­tent can the govern­ment in­ter­fere with how a pri­vate col­lege grades its stu­dents?

The an­swers to those ques­tions may start to emerge as early as Aug. 1, when the court will hold a pro­ceed­ing on Tro­caire’s ac­tion.

Na­wo­jski, who has worked as a den­tal hy­gien­ist, lives with her hus­band and their teenage son on a Cheek­towaga culde-sac.

Dur­ing her sec­ond se­mes­ter at Tro­caire in the spring of 2014, Na­wo­jski failed Nurs­ing 122, a course called Health Restora­tion I. She told the di­vi­sion she didn’t have enough time to fin­ish her test.

On a hunch, she sought test­ing for a learn­ing dis­abil­ity. Her psy­chol­o­gist di­ag­nosed the read­ing dis­or­der, and the Aug. 14, 2014, as­sess­ment rec­om­mended she: • Re­ceive ex­tra sup­port at school; •Be in “a more or­ga­nized and struc­tured work­ing and study en­vi­ron­ment;”

• Get ex­tra time to fin­ish as­sign­ments;

• And, re­ceive mod­i­fied in­struc­tions and given min­i­mal mul­ti­task­ing work.

In Jan­uary 2015, Na­wo­jski met with Lau­ren El­lis, the school’s dis­abil­ity co­or­di­na­tor. El­lis rec­om­mended Na­wo­jski re­ceive “time and a half” on tests, which she could take separately from other stu­dents, and have ac­cess to recorded lec­tures. Na­wo­jski was also paired with Mar­garet Mur­ray, who tu­tored her that spring se­mes­ter and the fol­low­ing fall se­mes­ter, as a cour­tesy.

With her new ac­com­mo­da­tions, Na­wo­jski re­took Nurs­ing 122 and passed.

Na­wo­jski found the tu­tor­ing es­pe­cially help­ful.

“I wanted to thank you for all your hard work and I ap­pre­ci­ate all you have done for me to help me get through the last 2 semesters,” she wrote in an email to Mur­ray in De­cem­ber 2015.

In the same email, Na­wo­jski asked Mur­ray to sched­ule days to meet the next se­mes­ter.

In her re­ply email, Mur­ray turned Na­wo­jski down, which the stu­dent later cited in her hu­man rights com­plaint. Mur­ray told Na­wo­jski she could tu­tor only stu­dents re­peat­ing the com­ing course early in the se­mes­ter but could even­tu­ally take re­fer­rals from pro­fes­sors. Mur­ray added she could let Na­wo­jski “qui­etly come to those re­views when it starts” and that she could set ap­point­ments with other tu­tors.

Mur­ray, in an in­ter­view with the Di­vi­sion of Hu­man Rights, char­ac­ter­ized her re­ply as telling Na­wo­jski she “could not see her be­cause she had not failed.”

Na­wo­jski thought she could set up the tu­tor­ing from the get-go be­cause of her ac­com­mo­da­tions, and af­ter she told Mur­ray as much, the tu­tor said she had for­got­ten that and she would let her know when the tu­tor­ing ses­sions would be­gin. But Mur­ray never reached out, and Na­wo­jski went without a tu­tor for nurs­ing that se­mes­ter.

In March that year, El­lis, the dis­abil­ity co­or­di­na­tor, emailed Na­wo­jski ask­ing how her ac­com­mo­da­tions were work­ing.

“I’m do­ing OK,” she replied. “Failed my sec­ond exam. But I’m try­ing my best.”

Na­wo­jski’s re­sponse, El­lis later told the state, “did not trig­ger any con­cerns that com­plainant may need fur­ther sup­port.”

In April, Mur­ray saw the stu­dent and asked how she was do­ing. Na­wo­jski said she was do­ing OK, Mur­ray later told the state.

But in the first week of May, Na­wo­jski found out she had failed Nurs­ing 222, the Health Restora­tion III course.

That was her sec­ond failed class. Un­der the school’s pol­icy, it didn’t make a dif­fer­ence that Na­wo­jski re­took and passed the first course she failed. Al­most all area schools that of­fer nurs­ing de­grees – D’You­ville Col­lege, Erie Com­mu­nity Col­lege and the Univer­sity at Buf­falo – have the same rules. Dae­men Col­lege has a sim­i­lar pol­icy only at its grad­u­ate level, but if stu­dents re­take and pass a class, it does not count to­ward their tally.

Af­ter fail­ing her sec­ond class, Na­wo­jski met with El­lis, who, ac­cord­ing to Na­wo­jski, told her she would work to “fig­ure out a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to pro­vide bet­ter ser­vices that would be more ben­e­fi­cial.”

On May 12, Na­wo­jski emailed the nurs­ing pro­gram di­rec­tor, Catherine Gris­wold, ask­ing her to ex­cuse the first fail­ure. Na­wo­jski said she did not have sup­port for her dis­abil­ity when she failed that class. But with the ac­com­mo­da­tions, she suc­ceeded, she wrote. Gris­wold de­nied her re­quest. On May 26, Na­wo­jski got her dis­missal let­ter. In June, she pe­ti­tioned for read­mis­sion. “While I am will­ing to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for fail­ing NU222, the lack of suc­cess in NU122 should not be held against me,” she wrote in an email to Gris­wold.

The col­lege de­nied her re­quest again, and then she filed her hu­man rights com­plaint.

“While I am will­ing to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for fail­ing NU222, the lack of suc­cess in NU122 should not be held against me.”

Mark Mul­ville/Buf­falo News

Tro­caire Col­lege will face a State Supreme Court hear­ing Aug. 1.

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