Teacher Fights Alleged Perfume Harassment

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When teachers complain about student harassment, they usually mention the occasional spitball or strategically placed thumbtack.

But in Judith Sanderson’s Culver City High School class, one expression of juvenile contempt outranks them all: using perfume.

Sanderson, whose doctor says she has a severe chemical intolerance, has forced her school to install surveillance cameras in her classroom after 90 alleged “perfume attacks.” She said student pranksters, aware that even the slightest scent makes her ill, sprayed the door, furniture and floor of her room with fragrances.

The cameras are to be set up next month by order of a state mediator.

“I’m most grateful for the validating aspect of the ruling,” said Sanderson, who agreed to meet with a reporter only if she would first wash off any trace of perfume, and then sit downwind during an interview in a park. “It’s been a long haul.”

Sanderson, who has taught at Culver City High for more than half of her 52 years, suffers from reactive airways disease, a type of asthma aggravated by certain airborne particles.

Her introductory biology course does not require the use of chemicals, but the mere whiff of after-shave, cologne or scented deodorant used by her students curdles her stomach, blurs her vision, disrupts her balance and addles her memory, she said. “There is no medication except avoidance.”

Sanderson was deemed chemically injured by the district’s workers’ compensation physician in 1994, but years of disputes continued with the school district over how to protect her. Her union grievance made its way to the California State Mediation and Conciliation Service, where arbitrator Ronald Hoh determined late last year that the “fragrance assaults” were tantamount to physical injury.

Hoh ordered the high school to install video cameras in Sanderson’s classroom and in the adjoining hallway. Sanderson will also have a say in the assignment of nearby lockers.

Pranksters who are caught on tape will be punished by up to five days suspension from school.

The case reflects a growing intolerance of harassment by students, according to Ronald Stephens, the director of Pepperdine University’s National School Safety Center. “Teachers are increasingly looking for high-tech and other solutions to their victimization,” he said.

Principal Marvin Brown, who said the school spent $20,000 trying to solve the problem but was unable to satisfy Sanderson, denied there had been any overt attacks by students.

“What she considers an attack is when someone wears a perfume she doesn’t like,” he said.

David Mielke, president of the Culver City Federation of Teachers, criticized Brown and others for trivializing Sanderson’s problem. “They thought, ‘Oh, what a nutty teacher.’ If kids find out they can harass a teacher with impunity, they will.”

Sanderson believes her ailment is linked to an incident that occurred 22 years ago, when she accidentally punctured a 30-pound plastic container of concentrated formaldehyde and was overwhelmed by noxious fumes. It was not until 1990 that she began breaking out in rashes from exposure to chemicals in her cosmetics and household cleaners, she said.

Soon the potent aromas worn by her students started to induce flu-like symptoms in her, racking her body with waves of nausea, migraines and dizziness, she said.

School administrators purchased a $900 portable air filter for her classroom, but at faculty meetings she was forced to wear a mask made with an organic charcoal filter to block her colleague’s odors, she said.

She said she sent out letters to parents in 1994 explaining her condition and asking them to instruct their children to abstain from using strong-smelling cosmetics.

But some students treated her condition as a joke.

Pupils would attend class reeking of Ck, a unisex cologne popular among teenagers, and Sanderson would expel them to the principal’s office for the hour. After four to five such expulsions a week, parents complained that Sanderson spent too much time sniffing their children instead of teaching them.

“She was kind of weird,” said Owen Waring, 16. “She would smell you as you walked through the door. Once she asked me not to use this one shampoo anymore.”

Jenna Gripp, 17, said: “She sent one of my friends to the bathroom with a box of baking soda and told him to wash his skin off. She was always lecturing us on chemicals and how they hurt you.”

Soon, Sanderson said, her classroom became a magnet for pranksters who shellacked the room’s surfaces with cologne in her absence and even tossed in small bottles of fragrances from the hallway as she lectured.

“It felt as if the air had been sucked out of the room,” she said.

She believed only a handful of students were responsible, but could find no witnesses.

Meanwhile, school officials sealed the air vents between her classroom and the girls’ bathroom; changed the wood door to a less porous metal one and stopped fumigating and using chemical cleaning products in her quarters. All told, the school spent $20,000 on such adjustments, Brown said.

Sanderson was not satisfied.

The school offered to transfer her to a junior high school or to a portable classroom, saying that younger students used cosmetics less and a stand-alone classroom would have better ventilation.

Sanderson balked, suggesting instead that students check their fragrances in at the school office along with their pagers and Walkmans, that a security guard be assigned to her classroom and that 100 lockers flanking her class be torn down.

The school refused.

In the wake of that stalemate, Sanderson filed a grievance with the union, whose contract prohibits employees from working “in facilities which endanger their health,” and won a ruling from Hoh.

Hoh said that although surveillance cameras are increasingly used in common areas such as school buses and hallways, he knew of no other cases in which they were installed in a classroom. He said he was convinced his ruling did not violate the privacy rights of students.

As glad as she is for the presence of cameras, Sanderson doubts that they will discourage students who want to harass her.

“Teenagers are incredibly creative,” she said. “They can hide it from the camera.”