A former social work student at Wayne State University, who says she was prevented from graduating due to discrimination during a Salvation Army internship, will receive $850,000, thanks to a federal appeals court that recently upheld the jury award in U.S. District Court.
The graduate student, Tina Varlesi, was assigned to work with men at a Salvation Army rehab center who were struggling with substance abuse. She was pregnant at the time.
Varlesi said her supervisor made inappropriate comments to her during her internship. She was instructed to stop rubbing her belly and to wear looser clothing to prevent the men at the rehab center from being “turned on by her pregnancy,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
According to the ruling, her supervisor also gave her many instructions about how she should behave during her pregnancy, telling her when she should drive, asking her probing questions about whether she was married, and telling her that men at the rehab center “can look but they cannot touch.” Varlesi was not alone during these conversations with her supervisor. Other students were present during these personal inquiries.
After Varlesi filed a complaint about her supervisor with the university, she was called into a meeting with the supervisor and the school’s administrators. Instead of intervening on her behalf and suggesting she wasn’t responsible for the libidinous feelings of the men at the center, however, the university administrators agreed that Varlesi should wear looser clothing.
She eventually received a failing grade for her internship, which prevented her from being able to graduate from the masters program. But when she made a formal complaint against the university, Wayne State denied the claim. (Varlesi settled with the Salvation Army.)
Unfortunately, pregnancy discrimination is not entirely rare in education settings — whether in higher education or K-12 public schools — although the women discriminated against are usually teachers, not students.
Last summer, for example, an assistant professor filed a $650,000 lawsuit against Northwest Christian University, claiming that supervisors fired her after she told them was pregnant out of wedlock. She alleges supervisors told her that she had a choice — she had to get married or say her pregnancy was a mistake and end her relationship with her partner of 12 years, according to OregonLive.com. A pregnant teacher at Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a parochial high school, had been married to her female partner for two years when was told she either had to be fired or resign from her job because she was not a role model for students. Other women married to women who have become pregnant at Catholic schools have also been fired under similar circumstances, The New Republic reported.
But religious schools certainly aren’t the only perpetrators of pregnancy discrimination in education. Last December, eight Chicago teachers who said they were discriminated against while pregnant split a $280,000 payout for damages and backpay from Chicago Public Schools. A school principal threatened to fire pregnant teachers, and teachers say he gave them poorer performance evaluations while they were pregnant.