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April 1, 2003

Hearing-Impaired Girl's Parents Sue Over Sign Language Ban

From: WNBC, NY - Apr 1, 2003

BRANCHBURG, N.J. -- The parents of a hearing-impaired girl who was briefly barred from using sign language on her school bus two years ago have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the district.

John and Mary Ann Lesko claim Branchburg school officials violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New Jersey Handicap Access Law by imposing the ban in March 2001. They claim the dispute caused their daughter, Danica, to suffer "humiliation, embarrassment and mental anguish" and that she subsequently required medical attention and psychological counseling.

Danica, who at the time was a fifth-grader at the Stony Brook School in Branchburg, was told by her principal, J. Harry Westerholm, that she would be suspended for three days if she did not stop using sign language on the bus. He said it was "disruptive" and could create a safety problem.

The ban was lifted a few days later after district officials clarified their position, saying sign language would only be prohibited if it jeopardized other students' safety.

In their suit filed last week, the Leskos seek unspecified damages and name Westerholm, Superintendent Lois Capobianco, bus driver Mabel Gulick and Jill Willinger, an art teacher at the school, as defendants.

Capobianco declined to comment on the matter, saying the Somerset County district had not been served with the suit.

This is the second suit filed against the district by the Leskos, who claim their daughter's hearing problem was caused by an incident at her school in November 2000. She was in a hallway when another student allegedly set off a bottle rocket that exploded near her head, causing her to suffer a moderate hearing loss.

Her parents sued the district in that case, but the status of the suit was not immediately known Tuesday.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.