April 18, 2001 -- School officials have threatened a hearing-impaired girl with suspension if she uses sign language to talk to her friends on the school bus, the girl's parents say.
Danica Lesko and her parents say sign language is the only way to for the 12-year-old to communicate, especially while riding to school on a noisy bus.
But officials at Stonybrook School — which is not a school for the hearing-impaired — and district officials in Branchburg, N.J., apparently believe signing is a safety hazard. They have sent a letter to the Lesko family ordering Danica to stop using sign language on the school bus or risk a three-day suspension.
The March 30 letter from her principal that said Danica was "doing sign language after being told it wasn't allowed on the bus."
The Leskos may file a lawsuit over the sign language ban, claiming officials are violating Danica's civil rights and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"She has a hearing problem, and now she's being punished for using sign language," Mary Ann Lesko, Danica's mother, told The Star-Ledger of Newark. "It's absurd."
Danica's parents told the paper that other students who rode to school with their daughter made fun of her, and refused to stay in their seats as they teased other girls who were using sign language. They said school officials are singling out Danica and not addressing those who should really be reprimanded.
Schools Officials: Safety First
In a statement released through the school district's attorney, David Rubin, the Branchburg Board of Education refused to discuss the details of Danica's case, saying only that its version of events differs from the parents' version.
However, the board insisted it has not violated anyone's rights and is only trying to protect other students who must ride on the school bus.
"The Board is committed to providing reasonable accommodations to all students with disabilities, and is satisfied that there has been no violation of that policy in this case," officials said in the statement. "The Board is also committed to assuring the safety of all students who travel on District buses, and will continue to take appropriate steps to accomplish that goal."
One deaf-rights advocate said Danica's parents have a strong basis for a lawsuit because sign language could be a considered a foreign language, and school officials could be violating the girl's First Amendment right to communicate.
"Why should there be a ban?" asked Charlotte Karras, outreach coordinator for the Edison, N.J.-based Alliance for Disabled in Action. "It's a violation of her communication rights. She's said it's the only way she can communicate with her friends … It's [the ban] against the ADA and violates the First Amendment and her family can file a discrimination suit citing the Americans With Disabilities Act."
Karras said her organization would be willing to help the Leskos with any legal action.
Danica's parents say she began losing her hearing last November, when a classmate allegedly shot a bottle rocket near her ear. They have already sued the Branchburg School District over that incident.