New Jersey school officials restrict student’s use of sign language on bus

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Danica Lesko’s enthusiasm for sign language sprung from a desire to talk more clearly with her brother, a nine-year-old born with a hearing impairment.

And when Danica’s own hearing began deteriorating — the result of a bottle rocket explosion last November — she began to use the skill every day. The 12-year-old joined a sign language club at Stony Brook School in Branchburg Township, N.J., and enjoyed signing with her friends on a noisy bus ride to and from school.

But Branchburg school officials ordered the girl to stop signing on the bus, claiming that her use of sign language created a safety problem.

Although school officials are unclear how signing created a disturbance, John Lesko, Danica’s father, said he was told that the problem arose because some boys on the bus began teasing his daughter and her friends for using sign language. Their teasing often escalated into yelling and jumping, he said.

“We were told that because they are being bad, she can’t use sign language,” Lesko said in a telephone interview. “That’s ridiculous to say the least. Instead of speaking to the boys, it was easier to suppress the girls.”

And now John and Mary Ann Lesko are considering a legal challenge against the school, claiming that Branchburg Township school officials violated their daughter’s First Amendment free-speech rights.

The Leskos’ concerns arose after Stony Brook Principal J. Harry Westerholm sent a written report to them on March 30 explaining that their daughter was “doing sign language after being told it wasn’t allowed on the bus.” The notice stated further that if Danica continued using sign language on the bus she could face a three-day suspension from the bus and other disciplinary measures.

“We told our daughter, ‘You have a right to use sign language. We will back you 100 percent,’ ” Lesko said.

The Leskos also accuse school officials of singling Danica out for punishment. But Westerholm told The (Newark) Star-Ledger that Danica was the only student chastised because she was the only one who refused to stop signing.

Since the incident, the Leskos claim, school officials have harassed Danica and failed to protect her from bullying and teasing.

Westerholm declined to comment to about the incident, saying the school’s lawyers were reviewing the situation. But he said published details about Danica and her use of sign language have been misleading.

“When the full story comes out, you’ll find there is nothing to it,” he said in a telephone interview.

After several news organizations reported the situation, district officials were bombarded with calls and e-mails from people and groups around the country, who questioned why the ban was needed.

“The district’s policy and the principal’s intention is not to ban signing,” Superintendent Lois Capabianco told the Associated Press last month. “Everyone needs to know that signing is allowed on the bus.”

She declined to further discuss the case, citing active and potential litigation, but said the district’s attorney had sent the Leskos a letter clarifying that Danica would not be barred from using sign language on the bus as long as she obeyed the district’s safety rules.

But Lesko said the letter from school officials hardly made it clear that his daughter could sign on the bus. The letter reads that Danica may sign “as long as it doesn’t cause a disturbance with others.”

Lesko says that means his daughter could be reprimanded again if someone takes offense or begins a disturbance just because she is using sign language.

Charlotte Karras, deaf outreach coordinator for the Alliance for Disabled in Action, suspects that Danica’s freedom of speech is being violated. She said deaf people can sign very wildly and can even curse in sign language but noted that on rare cases it could be distracting.

“But that’s her communication mode at this point,” Karras said in a telephone interview. “That is really like saying, ‘You can’t talk at all.’ “

School officials declined to consider suggestions from Karras and the Leskos that if sign language is restricted on the school bus, then all speech should be. Lesko said officials also declined to try mediation through a state advocacy lawyer.

“They’re unreasonable, and they are willing to show that if you are powerful you can break the law,” Lesko said. “They are supporting the bullies over the girl that is quiet.”

Lesko said some of the backlash might be political. Mary Ann Lesko is a former school board president. And the Leskos already have filed one lawsuit against the school district for an incident they say caused their daughter’s progressive hearing loss. Last November at the school, a classmate shot a bottle rocket near Danica’s ear.

The possibility of another lawsuit aside, the Leskos decided to take Danica out of Stony Brook School. They say some of the boys taunting her on the bus began slapping her on the playground, while school officials did nothing. Danica is finishing the school year with tutors.

“The problem is, what do we do with her education next year?” Lesko said. “We’re actually looking to get out of the township, and we’ve been here for nine years. I don’t want to live somewhere where this is allowed.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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