Florida Teacher Blames Firing on Support for Terri Schiavo
By Jeff Johnson
CNSNews.com Senior Staff Writer
December 09, 2003
(CNSNews.com) - A Pinellas County, Fla., teacher -- who is disabled and works with disabled students- - claims she is being fired because she voiced her support for another disabled Florida woman: Terri Schindler Schiavo.
Rus Cooper-Dowda told CNSNews.com Wednesday morning that the Pinellas County School Board voted six-to-one to fire her Tuesday night, citing "job perforrmance" as the reason. The veteran teacher claims she was terminated in retaliation for sharing her opinion about the Schiavo case in response to a reporter's question.
She also said that some school board members wanted her to provide more information about her claims but were discouraged from asking questions at Tuesday night's hearing by an attorney for the board.
Terri Schindler Schiavo is the 39-year-old woman who suffered a severe brain injury under questionable circumstances in 1990. Doctors hired by her husband, and a court-appointed expert who reviewed Terri's medical records, believe she is in a "Persistent Vegetative State," while doctors employed by her parents and unpaid experts have said that Terri's condition could improve with therapy and rehabilitation.
Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, received court permission to have Terri's feeding tube removed so she would die by dehydration and starvation. But the move was blocked, initially through legal actions brought by Terri's parents and, then, by a law passed by the Florida legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Schiavo is currently challenging the constitutionality of the legislation, dubbed "Terri's Law" by its supporters.
After a Florida court gave Schiavo permission to let his wife die in early October, Cooper-Dowda responded to a question from a local television reporter about the judge's decision.
"I did a very brief interview, offsite, on my own time, not identifying as a teacher, where I said, 'As a disabled Floridian of faith, female, with disabilities, this is scary,'" Cooper-Dowda explained. "And I was really clear that 'you cannot say I am a teacher' and the reporter was disappointed because I teach special ed[ucation], but agreed."
What the 26-year-veteran teacher could not have known at the time was that many of the students at Bay Point Middle School - where she taught children with behavioral, emotional and learning disabilities - were watching the local news that evening for extra credit. Word of Cooper-Dowda's "stardom" traveled quickly.
"The next morning I came in [and] there was a [regular monthly] faculty meeting, the Christian faculty who saw it ... said it was 'a really great, life-affirming interview,'" Cooper Dowda explained. "Then, for the first time, I started hearing, 'Well, you don't fit in. Teachers with public opinions like that don't fit in.'"
Cooper-Dowda said she was also called a "religious wacko" on more than one occasion, even though she only mentioned her religious beliefs in passing during the interview.
"The principal, various teachers, my supervisor, aides, paraprofessionals, everyone was saying, 'Teachers aren't allowed to have opinions, especially about Terri Schiavo, and especially if you're already a seminary grad[uate],'" Cooper-Dowda alleged. "And I'm thinking, 'Wow! I thought this was America?"
The situation went from bad to worse, Cooper-Dowda claimed, when several copies of a booklet she had written detailing the similarities between her experience and that of Terri Schindler Schiavo appeared on campus. At age 30, the teacher contracted a severe case of lupus that left her unable to speak and with very little control over her motor functions. She listened helplessly as doctors incorrectly diagnosed her as being in a Persistent Vegetative State, the same condition some physicians believe afflicts Terri, and described her chances for recovery as "hopeless."
"I could hear all that," Cooper-Dowda recalled. "It took a huge effort to finally communicate, 'I'm in here!' And I barely survived."
Though she could not speak, Cooper-Dowda would use her finger to write the word "no" in the air when doctors discussed removing her life support. Those same doctors diagnosed her attempts to communicate as "seizure activity" and sedated her. According to Cooper-Dowda, the harder she tried to communicate with her caretakers, the more heavily she was sedated.
The curiosity of one nurse saved Cooper-Dowda's life, she said.
"She refused to believe that the systematic pattern of tapping and blinking and moving and moaning was not communication," Cooper-Dowda recalled. "So, when I went to Terri Schiavo's October 2002 hearing ... I saw the videos for the first time and I was writing about it and I thought, 'That could have been me,' and then I thought, 'Oh, it was me!'"
That nurse put ink on the incapacitated woman's fingertip. Cooper-Dowda was then able to write the letter "y" for the word "yes," and "n" for "no," proving that the doctors had been wrong about her condition.
Since then, Cooper-Dowda has completed a second master's degree and given birth to a son, who is about to enter college. She told CNSNews.com that after 25 years of teaching at private schools, she finally realized her dream of working with disabled students in a public school system. She began work at Bay Point Middle School on Aug. 1.
But after the television interview and the unexpected arrival of her writing about Terri Schiavo's case appeared on campus, Cooper-Dowda said it became almost impossible to do the job she so loved.
"After that I couldn't get the most accepted basic support like needed room supplies, memos about meetings, campus police help when any of my kids needed to be removed for violence or assistance for students hurting themselves regularly," Cooper-Dowda alleged. "Finally, I was given less than a day to hand deliver a resignation for 'personal reasons' or be fired for 'not fitting in.'"
Ron Stone, associate superintendent for human resources and public affairs for Pinellas County Schools, told CNSNews.com that Cooper-Dowda has no recourse other than Tuesday night's scheduled appeal to the board.
"She is a probationary employee and under Florida law all teachers are hired under a 97-day probationary contract as at-will employees and at any point during that 97-day period, the principal can make a recommendation to discontinue the probation," Stone explained. "Essentially, that's what's happened here, and we don't have to have reasons for that."
Cooper-Dowda believes that her termination is being expedited to make sure that it is completed before her probation expires, but she has been in contact with several public interest law firms who say that the appeals process will move her past the probationary period and make her eligible for the protections afforded to regular staff teachers.
She also said Wednesday morning that the Florida Department of Education is investigating her firing at the request of the governor's office.
The Pinellas County School Board meeting, at which Cooper-Dowda was fired, was telecast live on the local cable system. Because of the abbreviated holiday programming schedule, it's expected that the meeting will be replayed several times over the next four to six weeks.
"They threatened me with this. They said, 'If you don't resign for personal reasons, you're gonna get fired over and over and over' because the school board meeting runs on TV through the December holidays when everyone turns to them for the student concerts," Cooper-Dowda alleged. "They thought I would go, 'Oh, geez, I'd better resign.'
"Instead, I went, 'If Terri's supporters talk, their witness is going to run over and over and over through December," Cooper-Dowda said cheerfully. "There's a reason this is happening to me."
Cooper-Dowda hopes the public and media focus will quickly shift from her story to Terri's plight, but she acknowledges that the altercation with Pinellas County school officials has changed her life forever.
"I'm going to be so sad. I've wanted to be a public school teacher since I was five and I finally got in, in August. It took me 43 years to get here," Cooper-Dowda said. "I probably will not teach again."
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