Vision-Impaired Teacher Claims Discrimination

That’s not how the Kent School District sees it.

To understand how Lukas Barfield sees the world, imagine staring through a toilet-paper roll with wax paper over the other end. Barfield suffers from rod-cone dystrophy, a condition that causes a very narrow field of vision—even objects right in front of him are hard to make out.

But Barfield didn’t let his condition stop him from getting a teaching certificate with an emphasis in math from the University of Washington and a teaching job in the Kent School District. After the 2006–2007 school year—his first—Barfield received a satisfactory evaluation, but at the end of the following term, the district fired him. Last month he sued the district for discrimination.

At the start of the 2007–2008 school year, Barfield started answering to a new vice principal, Anthony Brown. “Almost immediately, Mr. Brown began to discriminate,” Barfield’s suit against the district states.

Barfield’s attorney, Tyler Firkins, says Mill Creek isn’t an easy school to begin with, even for sighted teachers. “We’re not talking about [advanced placement] students at Mercer Island or something like that,” Firkins says. “This is a pretty challenging group that he had.” The fourth-period kids were a particular problem, passing notes, throwing things, and not getting out textbooks when asked. So in the fall of 2007, Barfield says he asked Brown for help, claiming students took advantage of his sight problems. According to the suit, Brown offered no assistance and told Barfield he needed to be “the heavy.”

After a parent complained later that fall that disruptive students in that class made it harder for others to learn, Barfield reminded Brown that he had asked for assistance. According to the lawsuit, Brown began coming into Barfield’s class unannounced, sitting outside the teacher’s field of vision. Barfield claims he didn’t know Brown was in the room; once, Barfield says, he nearly sat on Brown. After the surreptitious observations, Brown criticized him for things like not seeing students raising their hands or passing notes, Barfield says.

In January of this year, Barfield asked for a para-educator—a specialized teaching assistant—to help him manage his class. Brown allegedly replied by saying the district wasn’t obligated to provide one. Barfield then asked for a meeting with the Kent Education Association and the state Department of Services for the Blind. The district subsequently agreed to hire someone to assist Barfield in the classroom. But even then, Barfield says, Brown only allowed the assistant to do little more than point out disruptive kids. Instead of providing Barfield with the help he needed, Filkins says the assistant “became a classroom narc.”

At the end of the year, the district notified Barfield that his contract would not be renewed. He appealed to the Kent School Board and filed for a restraining order against the district to stop the firing. Both of these maneuvers proved unsuccessful.

Firkins says other districts have been far more accommodating to teachers with disabilities than Kent. He believes administrators preferred to force Barfield out rather than make it easier for him to teach. Meanwhile, the district filed a general response in court Nov. 25, denying any wrongdoing without going into specifics. Kent School District spokesperson Becky Hanks says she can’t comment directly on Barfield’s case, but adds that the district has successfully made accommodations for other teachers with sensory disabilities, though she wouldn’t go into specifics.

“Kent School District does not discriminate on disability. If an employee does not have a contract renewed, the issue is job performance,” says Hanks.

Firkins acknowledges the district wrote his client up several times for issues related to students’ behavioral problems. But those are instances, he says, where a sighted teacher wouldn’t have had the same problems. Perhaps the most damning claim in Barfield’s suit is the allegation that Brown not only cited him unfairly, but repeatedly noted that Barfield’s problem was his inability to see all that went on. According to the complaint, Barfield had to remind the vice principal that he was visually impaired.

More in News & Comment

Federal Way resident Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, 17, died Jan. 27, 2017. Courtesy photo
Law enforcement challenges report on sting operation that killed Federal Way teen

King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s findings rattle Sheriff’s Office, police union.

Unstable housing? Apply for Section 8

Applications open in February for housing vouchers

In 2018, the city of Seattle approved and then repealed a head tax within a month. It would have levied a $275 per employee tax on businesses grossing more than $20 million annually. Sound Publishing file photo
County head tax bill passes committee

Bill would let King County levy a tax on businesses to fund housing and address homelessness.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs the first bill of the 2020 legislative session into law. On the right stands the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who is wearing a red tie. Photo by Cameron Sheppard, WNPA News Service
Gov. Inslee signs tax bill to help fund higher education

Law shifts a portion of the tax burden to large tech companies.

King County Metro’s battery-electric bus. Photo courtesy of kingcounty.gov
King County Metro bus fleet will be electrified by 2035

Future base in South King County would house hundreds of the zero-emission vehicles.

Three-quarters of the suicide deaths among children ages 10 to 14 are caused by firearms, according to a new report from the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at the University of Washington. File photo
King County studies youth gun violence amid rising suicides

It’s unclear what’s driving the trend.

Bonsai burglary: trees worth thousands stolen from Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way

The two bonsai, a Silverberry and a Japanese Black Pine, were stolen from the secured public exhibit area early Sunday morning.

A King County work crew clears a road near Preston on Feb. 7, 2020. Heavy rains appear to have caused multiple landslides along the road. Aaron Kunkler/staff photo
The future could look a lot like this year’s flood season

Climate change is expected to lead to more winter flooding in King County.

High tides, as seen in this file photo of Raymond’s Willapa Landing Park in Pacific County, could become the norm in the future due to sea level rise. Sound Publishing file photo
UW summarizes Washington climate impact on water

The report localizes information from the United Nations.

Sound Publishing file photo
King County Council could place roads levy lift on 2020 ballot

Levy could increase taxes for a median home by about $224 a year.

A stump left over from a previous timber cut on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in Gold Bar, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lawmakers back timber industry to help reduce WA’s carbon emissions

8 million acres of private forests offset 12% of state’s carbon emissions, says forestry group.

A King County work crew clears a road near Preston on Feb. 7, 2020. Heavy rains appear to have caused multiple landslides along the road. Aaron Kunkler/staff photo
The future could look a lot like this year’s flood season

Climate change is expected to lead to more winter flooding in King County.