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2 Former Douglas County Teachers File Discrimination Lawsuit

By Kelly Werthmann

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (CBS4) - Two former Douglas County teachers, allegedly forced to retire early due to their illnesses, have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school district.

The family of Sarah Staebell claims the former fifth grade teacher was pressured to quit after asking for intermittent leave to fight colon cancer. Elizabeth Rendall also said she was forced out when she needed to bring a portable oxygen tank to Sand Creek Elementary while she battled pneumonia.

"These were teachers who were very, very well loved in the community," Paula Greisen, one of the teachers' attorneys, told CBS4's Kelly Werthmann. "They're also employees who were kicked when they were down."

(credit: CBS)

Staebell worked at Northeast Elementary School in Parker for 15 years before she was allegedly forced to leave. She was diagnosed with colon cancer for a second time in January 2014 and when she requested additional medical leave to fight it, the district turned her down.

"When she was told she'd have to go through chemotherapy again, the school basically said 'not on our watch. We're not going to give you time off spread out over a period of time. We're going to force you to take it all at the same time and then at the end of that month when you run out of time off, we're going to fire you,'" Greisen explained.

Sarah Staebell
Sarah Staebell (credit: CBS)
Sarah Staebell
Sarah Staebell (credit: CBS)

According to the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, Northeast Elementary Principal Jeannie Tynecki and other district administration were unhappy with Ms. Staebell's use of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when she requested additional time off in 2013 and 2014. Tynecki told Ms. Staebell that she "cannot do this again" and suggest that she quit teaching, adding that her medical leave "was not good for the kids" because they "must worry about her," the lawsuit reads.

"And that left a single mother with two young children without health insurance benefits at a time when she's fighting cancer," Greisen said.

After her three-and-a-half-year battle against cancer, Staebell passed away on May 28 at the age of 42. She is survived by her two young boys and parents. Her estate is named in the disability discrimination lawsuit.

Rendall is also named in the lawsuit after she allegedly was forced to retire from the district. Rendall was a special education teacher with more than 20 years of experience. In 2014, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and required medical leave. According to the lawsuit, the district granted her 30 days under FMLA, but on the last day of school Sand Creek Elementary School Assistant Principal Robin Fender suggested Rendall quit saying, "That would make this easier for all of us." Rendall refused to resign.

Sand Creek Elementary School (credit: CBS)

When Rendall was clear of pneumonia in June 2014, her doctors required she wear a portable oxygen concentrator. However, the lawsuit claims the district saw that as a safety hazard, calling it "an unacceptable safety risk." The district also called the oxygen tank "a potential weapon" and that "Ms. Rendall was a direct threat to her students and herself."

"The concept of needing oxygen being a weapon was unbelievable," Greisen said. "Anything can be a weapon. A chair can be a weapon. A pencil be a weapon. So to all of a sudden say that her needed oxygen was a weapon or could be used as a weapon was an irresponsible decision by the school district."

The lawsuit goes on to say that Rendall was told she could return in January 2015 if she was "no longer on oxygen." But when that didn't happen, the district terminated her health benefits and Rendell ultimately lost her job.

"There is something seriously with a wrong with a district that allows some of its valuable community members to be treated this way," Greisen said. DOUGCO LAWSUIT (3)

CBS4 reached out to the Douglas County School District, but was only given this reply from the district's spokesperson: "We do not comment on personnel matters or pending litigation."

Statement From The Douglas County School District

"We deny the allegations of discrimination and retaliation made in this complaint.

Allegations made in a lawsuit are not necessarily facts – they are allegations. We know that our school leaders and district staff members have dealt with these sensitive situations with professionalism and integrity, while also complying with all legal requirements.

We take very seriously our obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who need them to perform their duties without putting the safety of students and staff at risk. We do not allow employees who have been out on medical leave to return to their previous duties unless they are cleared by their doctors."

- Paula Hans, DCSD Public Information Officer

LINK: EEOC - Dismissal Of Charge

Kelly Werthmann joined the CBS4 team in 2012 as the morning reporter, covering national stories like the Aurora Theater Shooting and devastating Colorado wildfires. She now reports for CBS4 News at 10 and is always open to story ideas. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @KellyCBS4.

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