"She's an excellent teacher, the best. We've learned so much from her."-- Hana Ogawa, Palos Verdes High School Art Club co-president.
"She is the best teacher I have ever had."-- Tisha Treherne, Palos Verdes High School art student.
"She has consistently been an excellent teacher with high standards and has the respect and admiration of all her students and colleagues."-- Beth Glavas and Sara Hackenberg, Advanced Placement art students at Palos Verdes High School.
These accolades for 57-year-old Chizuko de Queiroz, a teacher for 27 years in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, sound as if they might have been delivered at a testimonial or her retirement dinner.
Instead, the words are from a petition, signed by more than 200 students, asking the district to give de Queiroz back her job. More than 70 faculty members have signed a separate petition protesting "the callous way Mrs. de Queiroz was removed from the classroom" and praising her "outstanding" accomplishments.
De Queiroz, who has been chairman of the art department at Palos Verdes High School since 1980, said she was told at a meeting with district officials on March 31 that she could not continue in her $43,000-a-year job because of a shoulder and back injury she suffered on the job in 1983.
Decided to Fight
At first she tried quietly to get her job back, but when that met with no success she decided to fight.
"Finally, I realized it doesn't work to just sit back and meditate and hope everything will work out," she said.
"It was a real blow when they said I couldn't return to work because of this 1983 injury," de Queiroz said, pacing nervously as she talked to a reporter at her Palos Verdes Estates home earlier this week. "If they had done this back then, maybe I could have accepted it."
District officials have declined to comment on the case, saying that it is the district's policy not to publicly discuss personnel matters.
De Queiroz said that when she showed up at the March 31 meeting, she was given a copy of a letter--which would arrive at her home later that day--from the district's insurance carrier stating that continuing to teach "places you in danger of seriously reinjuring yourself."
She said the administrators gave her three choices: training for a non-teaching job, early retirement or disability retirement. De Queiroz said that when she objected, Assistant Supt. David Capelouto and Personnel Director George Hardesty mentioned a fourth possibility: dismissal. She is scheduled to meet with district officials Monday to further discuss her options.
In an interview Thursday, Jeff Younggren, president of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District Board of Education, said that generally in worker's compensation cases, the school district has to abide by the advice of its insurance carrier. Noting he could not discuss the details of her case, he added, "It is not that the district is unfeeling or insensitive . . . but we can't afford to lose our coverage."
De Queiroz said that after several weeks of unsuccessfully trying to persuade district officials to let her go back to school, she hired an attorney and started lobbying members of the community.
"I didn't realize how difficult it would be to have to stay home at this time in the school year," she said, brushing aside a tear. "I have been frenzied to think I couldn't be with my students at this most important point, as they go into their Advanced Placement exam." De Queiroz said that for the last two or three years, she has been working closely with about 30 students who will earn 10 units of college credit if they pass their Advanced Placement examination next Thursday. With the examination fast approaching, "they needed me," she said.
The March 27, 1989, letter to de Queiroz from the insurance carrier--Tustin-based Greenfield-Thompson Associates--stated that a medical examination by Dr. Ray Craemer "indicates that you may not be able to return to your usual employment because of your 4/28/83 job injury."
The letter states that "Your job duties exceed your medical restrictions, and returning to these duties places you in danger of reinjuring yourself." Tom Blake, claims manager for Greenfield-Thompson, declined comment.
De Queiroz said that Craemer had checked her annually since 1983 and certified her for work every year until now.
She said she sees no reason why he should change his opinion. She has submitted to the district letters from her physicians, John E. Stratton and Luis A. Chui, stating that she is able to work as long as she avoids heavy lifting.
"I believe she can continue her work as a teacher as she has done the past years with job restrictions, specifically no lifting over 15 pounds and no repetitive bending, stooping or lifting of any type," Stratton said in an April 19 letter to Hardesty.
Chui said in an April 24 letter to Hardesty: "I see no medical or neurological contraindications for her to continue her job as an art teacher."
De Queiroz's 1983 injury occurred when she lifted some lightweight materials for an art project at school. Within a few days, she returned to work, treating her condition with regular physical therapy.
In 1986, she won a $25,800 worker's compensation award, which she receives in $130-a-week increments. She said she uses the money to hire household help on tasks she can no longer perform because of her injury.
De Queiroz said that at work and at home, she has been careful to avoid movements that would exacerbate her injury, but occasionally she suffers relapses and has to take brief periods off from work. She has been paid by worker's compensation during those absences.
In the past year, she said, she was out of work 10 or 12 days due to her shoulder, with the most recent absence of seven days in January.
Although officials blame the after-effects of her injury, de Queiroz said she wonders whether her suspension may have been prompted by a lengthy dispute she had this year over the district purchasing her art supply order at retail rather than wholesale prices as she had recommended.
As a matter of principle, she said, she criticized officials for exceeding her department budget by $500. Finally, the funds were restored to the department March 27, she said, but it was a short-lived victory.
Four days later, de Queiroz said, she was removed from her job. Until then, she said, she had no inkling she was to be relieved of her duties.
Over the years, de Queiroz has scored numerous accomplishments, and her scrapbook includes several clippings from the school newspaper detailing awards to her and her students. She was a finalist in the district's Teacher of the Year contest in 1984, and was nominated by the school administration in 1985 for the Bravo Award for excellence in fine arts. In 1984, 1986 and 1987 her students had winning entries in the U.S. Congressional District Art Contest.
"She is a very gifted teacher," said Lauren Sanders, executive director of the Palos Verdes Faculty Assn., the union representing district teachers.
In a letter demanding de Queiroz's immediate reinstatement, Sanders said that to suspend or dismiss de Queiroz the district would have to follow specific procedures in the state Education Code. "This has not been done," he said.
In addition, he said, should the district consider de Queiroz disabled, federal and state rehabilitation laws "expressly prohibit the denial of employment because of a handicap."
De Queiroz said that all she wants to do is to return to her students.
"I didn't realize how much I would miss them," she said.