Posted on: Thursday, December 5, 2002
Jury backs teacher in discrimination case
By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer
A federal jury yesterday awarded a Kaimuki High School teacher $1,055,000 for racial discrimination in a case brought against the Department of Education.
Psychology and sociology teacher Umar Rahsaam sued the DOE in 2000, accusing school officials of discrimination for denying him his choice of teaching assignment.
Attorney Andre Wooten said that Rahsaam, an African American who has worked in the DOE since 1976, was denied a transfer to Kaimuki High three times. He eventually was transferred to the school in 1995 after filing a grievance.
But once he was there, Rahsaam was not allowed to teach the sociology and psychology classes he had requested even though he had seniority, a master's degree in criminology and had done doctorate work at the University of Hawai'i in sociology. The teachers' union contract calls for teaching assignments to be based on seniority in the DOE system.
At one point, members of the social studies department began deciding teaching assignments by consensus and Rahsaam still could not teach the classes he wanted, he said.
Wooten said the effect was that teachers of Asian descent with less seniority in the DOE and without master's degrees were given their choice of teaching assignments over Rahsaam, the only black teacher in the department. But "the whole process was discriminatory," Wooten said.
A spokesman at the DOE said he could not comment because officials there had not seen the verdict.
Rahsaam started his career as a psychology and sociology teacher at Moanalua High School but was transferred out of that campus in 1982. He was transferred to a series of middle school campuses in the 1980s and early 1990s.
"I'm very pleased with the justice system in our state," Rahsaam said. "This is a 20-year issue of being fair."
Although the DOE is likely to appeal, it was the second large judgement against the DOE in a week.
Last week, the Hawai'i Supreme Court ruled that the state Department of Education must pay an additional $860,000 to two former Mokapu Elementary School students and their parents who sued the state for negligence after a teacher sexually molested the two girls in the early 1990s.
In that decision, the Supreme Court justices found that Circuit Judge Sabrina McKenna concluded incorrectly in March 2000 that the Department of Education was responsible for paying 49 percent of the $1.76 million judgment she awarded the two girls and their parents.
McKenna had ruled that former Mokapu Elementary teacher Lawrence Norton was responsible for the other 51 percent.
In its ruling Nov. 27, the Supreme Court found the state should pay the full settlement, because the Department of Education had failed to adequately to investigate sexual abuse allegations against Norton.
Reach Jennifer Hiller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8084.