Excessive Farce

The Palm Beach County school police force is charged with protecting schoolchildren, not endangering its female officers

By the time Nina Chamberlain tried to restrain the student at Boca Raton Middle School, he'd already punched a teacher so hard that he caused permanent hearing loss. The brawl started after two teachers -- one male, the other female -- invited the emotionally disturbed fifteen-year-old and his mother to a conference to discuss his future.

"This young man had some incidents at the school, where he had been extremely disruptive," explains Chamberlain, one of 70-odd police officers in the Palm Beach County School District Police Department, which maintains security in the county's public schools. "And this meeting was to see if we needed to move him to another school. The mother didn't want to hear of it."

Told that his mom had refused to attend the conference, the student approached the female teacher with clenched fists. The other teacher tried to intervene, so the 175-pound boy clobbered the six-foot-tall man instead. "He collapsed," recalls Chamberlain, who'd been invited to the meeting because of the boy's propensity for violence.

Chamberlain, age 27 at the time and considerably smaller than the assailant, grabbed one of the boy's arms as he threatened to kick the fallen teacher in the head. While she tried to get a good grip, the boy became more and more enraged, finally letting loose on Chamberlain with repeated blows to the stomach. She fell to the floor, and the boy ran out of the classroom.

What the fifteen-year-old didn't know was that Chamberlain was five months pregnant at the time. "Pregnant or not," she says more than five years later, "I had to act."

Two weeks after the incident, in January 1993, she miscarried.
Her doctor couldn't determine for sure whether the blows to her abdomen had caused the miscarriage. But Chamberlain insists that if her employer had given her a low-risk assignment, as she'd requested after becoming pregnant, the miscarriage might have been avoided. Instead James P. Kelly, the district's chief of police, had given her two options: Use up your sick days until the kid is born, or go on leave without pay.

Chamberlain couldn't afford either option, and besides, she enjoyed her work. Like many of her colleagues, she feels school district police work offers an invaluable benefit. While the officers perform the same duties as their counterparts in municipal and sheriff's departments, they also consider themselves mentors. They work closely with the students to prevent crime and solve problems. With that in mind, Chamberlain decided to stay on with the department. Being pregnant, she rationalized, was simply a risk to be added to the already long list of potential dangers she faced as a fully certified, armed police officer.

But by December 1997, after suffering one miscarriage and giving birth to two healthy children, she'd changed her mind. Pregnancy, she decided, should not be a career liability. So she filed suit in the U.S. District Court against the Palm Beach County School District and its police force, alleging that she had been discriminated against during each of her three pregnancies. What prompted the suit was Chamberlain's realization that other departments in the county -- including the Lake Worth police, her employer for five years -- accommodate pregnant officers by providing them with "light-duty" assignments, such as fingerprinting, dispatch, and communications, at full pay. The school district's police department, however, only gives light duty to those officers, male and female, who have been injured and need temporary relief. Pregnant women get no relief, Chamberlain claims. They're just given a choice: job or family.

Chamberlain isn't the only one feeling slighted these days. She's one of five female officers who have either filed suit or made formal complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within the past two years. As a group they claim that the police department has failed to provide women with the same opportunities as men for promotion, training, and temporary low-risk assignments. Four of the cases, including Chamberlain's, have yet to be tried and/or investigated, but one was decided, last October, in favor of the plaintiff. A U.S. District Court jury awarded Margaret Duttenhoeffer $112,000 after determining that the department had repeatedly passed her over for promotions in favor of less-qualified men.

Even though the district was named in the suit, several district officials and at least two school board members claim they were unaware that the case even existed. Keeping tabs on Chief Kelly and his department has never been a priority, they say, because he does such a good job.

Whatever the reason for the school officials' ignorance, morale among women in the police department is extremely low, according to the five women. They claim that, while school board policy demands adherence to federal equal-opportunity law, the police department doesn't enforce the law. And although the school district's main responsibility is to look after the welfare of children, it discourages the officers from doing the same for their own kids.

Another irony: Chamberlain, who still works for the police department, is on low-risk assignment because of a recent injury to her arm. But she remembers vividly how she felt when she was pregnant and doing regular duty.

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