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When Sarah Orzechowitz walked through the doors at Nova Southeastern University on the first day of classes in winter 2012, she had her hopes pinned on a career as a nurse. But as the mother of two went through the Davie university's program, higher learning turned out to be a hellish gauntlet of harassment, she claims.
According to a lawsuit Orzechowitz, 23, filed against the school this month, the student faced discrimination based on her religious faith. As an Orthodox Jew, she followed "tzniut," a practice that dictates married women wear long skirts and headscarfs in public.
But that modest dress code apparently didn't sit right with one professor, Sabrina Stern. The lawsuit claims the Nova faculty member consistently dogged the student for her "ungroomed" appearance.
"She faced what appears to be extremely malicious and totally irrational discrimination based upon her religious beliefs," says Robert Stok, Orzechowitz's attorney. "It caused her to be forced out of the program and to suffer extraordinary emotional distress and hardship."
The Nova handbook outlines strict guidelines about the appropriate dress for nursing students. However, the fine print also leaves exception for religious dress. But Stern relentlessly commented about the unprofessional nature of Orzechowitz's religious wrap, the lawsuit claims.
"The head covering the student wore had nothing to do with her professional training as a nurse," Stok says. "It in no way affected her level of competency as a nursing student or in any way affected her ability to tend to patients."
Things allegedly got a little Mean Girls-ish. Stern allegedly roped other professors into confronting Orzechowitz about her appearance, the lawsuit says, and would even contact other faculty to check in on what the student was wearing.
The harassment rolled into other areas as well. After a hospital visit with her 7-month-old left her without time to prepare for an exam, Orzechowitz asked Stern to schedule a makeup. The teacher said no, and Orzechowitz bombed.
When Orzechowitz took her complaints about the harassment to school administration, no action was taken to cool the student-teacher tensions. Orzechowitz couldn't take it anymore and dropped out.
"Before this experience, she was a straight-A student. But her grades were suffering, she was suffering from great emotional distress that was interfering with her personal life, and she felt totally alienated from the program," says Stok.
Orzechowitz is now enrolled at Barry University. Stok says there have been no problems with her headscarfs in the new program. Calls to Nova's media department were not returned.