Sleep apnea likely to cost teacher aide his job
By Christopher O'Donnell
MANATEE COUNTY, FL -
School officials plan to fire a teacher's aide for falling asleep on the job, even though they know his day-time dozing is the result of a medical condition.
Robert Singer, who works at Braden River Middle School, fell asleep several times at staff meetings and while supervising students, a district report states.
Doctors say Singer has sleep apnea, a condition that prevents deep sleep and often results in extreme day-time tiredness.
Local employment law attorneys say the condition qualifies as a disability that would give Singer protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The district may also have violated Singer's privacy rights by posting on its website an investigative report that listed his medical condition.
Singer, who has worked for the district since September 2007, plans to fight for his job and has filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge.
"It's a medical problem; there needs to be a plan in place for those who have it," he said. "As long as you're undergoing treatment, you should still have a place in the school system."
Before he knew he had sleep apnea, Singer received written reprimands in 2010 and early 2011 for falling asleep in staff meetings and while looking after students, the district report states.
After falling asleep again, he was suspended without pay for 10 days in February 2011 and placed on duties that did not bring him into contact with students. Around that time, he was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea.
The condition is a serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts and prevents deep, restorative sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. That can lead to excessive daytime exhaustion or drowsiness, as well as heart trouble and immune system issues.
In most cases the cause is blocked airways because throat muscles relax.
Singer was given an air pump and mask known as a CPAP that uses constant air pressure to keep air passages open, preventing apnea and snoring.
Singer was allowed to return to normal duties in May but his bouts of falling asleep continued, the district report states.
School administrators in November installed a hidden camera and videotaped Singer asleep for up to 30 minutes while he was supervising students in the in-school suspension room, according to the report.
Officials presented him with the evidence and told him he could resign or face a formal investigation.
He was allowed to go on sick leave from Nov. 22 through Dec. 8 and then to take unpaid leave until Jan. 13 while he investigated if he could get a disability retirement.
The district also offered him a position as a bus monitor, a move that Singer turned down as he often falls asleep when traveling in vehicles.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers make "reasonable accommodation" for their workers' disabilities.
That would include sleep apnea, said Kendra Presswood, an attorney with the Law Office of Cynthia N. Sass in Tampa.
"They're definitely on shaky grounds firing him for something like that, although it may be defendable," Presswood said.
David Linesch, a Pinellas County employment law attorney, said the district has a duty under the law to seek a solution to allow Singer to keep his job.
"My suggestion is the district should err on the side of having this guy revisit his condition with his physicians," Linesch said.
After posting the report that listed Singer's condition on Monday afternoon, district officials removed it from the website Tuesday afternoon. They later said they felt it was OK to post the report with Singer's name and medical condition.
Scott Martin, assistant superintendent, said the decision to fire Singer was made to protect students. He said Singer would be able to make his case at the hearing.
"Our concerns here relate to student safety and Mr. Singer's responsibility for supervising the students in his charge," Martin said. "Do we think we're within the confines of the law? Absolutely."
Following the administrative hearing, School Board members would be asked to vote whether to accept the judge's recommendation.
Singer, who earns $11.32 an hour as an aide, would like to be transferred to work as a teacher liaison with duties that include supervising students.
"That position is something I could handle while I'm undergoing the sleep apnea treatment," he said. "It would force me to be on my feet and walking around, not sitting in a stationary position."
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