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Former Avalon Officer Files Gender Discrimination Suit Over Physical Fitness Test

AVALON, Pa. (KDKA) - A former Avalon police officer says she wants to spark change and get more women in uniform. She worked as a part-time police officer in the Borough of Avalon with dreams of going full-time, but her lawsuit says a physical fitness test she calls discriminatory squashed her dreams.

"Whenever I was presented with this case, I was like, 'I thought this issue was resolved in the 90s. I thought we got rid of these barriers of entry for women in the 90s,'" said attorney Rachel McElroy.

Terra Johnston worked as a part-time police officer in Avalon for four months before she claims the police department discriminated against her and terminated her.

She asked to get her job back, raising her concerns about gender discrimination, but according to the lawsuit, the police chief called her allegations "an insult and ridiculous."

"My client was treated unfairly. She wanted an opportunity to be a police officer and she didn't get a fair shot at it. Not only did she not get a fair shot, but they also didn't follow regulations, they didn't follow guidelines, they didn't follow appropriate standards," said McElroy, Johnston's attorney.

The crux of the lawsuit claims the Avalon Police Department uses "outdated testing" that disproportionately weeds out female candidates.

According to the suit, Avalon Police required Johnston to complete physical testing to graduate from part-time to full-time. The lawsuit claims she passed it all except the window jump, where the officer climbs through a six-foot high-level window without assistance.

McElroy claims this window jump is outdated, and discriminatory if it unnecessarily weeds out certain candidates.

"Pennsylvania has a commission of municipal police officer training, and this commission has recommended a test called the COOPER health-based test and it's like sit-ups and running and push-ups, and that's the test they recommend as an entry test, and so a lot of other police departments use this test, including two of the big players, including Philly and Pittsburgh," said McElroy.

KDKA's Meghan Schiller asked McElroy how she draws the line between gender discrimination and the needed physical aptness for the job of a first responder.

"That's a very good and important question and I think the big issue in cases like this is you're only required to take this exam whenever you're applying to this job, this isn't an ongoing requirement for police officers so if you have an officer who's been on the force for 20 years, they're not required every year to scale a 6-foot-high wall," said McElroy.

The chief of police did not yet return KDKA's request for comment, but according to the lawsuit, he has claimed that the department's testing is not discriminatory towards women, calling it "an insult and ridiculous."

McElroy's hoping her client's lawsuit will at least start a conversation.

"She wants them to stop using the test. It keeps out, you know, women and a big important thing, at least for me too, is diversity in the police force," said McElroy.

KDKA's Meghan Schiller talked with Attorney Daniel Conlon, the solicitor for the Borough of Avalon. He said the claims in the suit are unfounded, saying "the Borough has very clear policies against employment and gender discrimination. It rejects the allegations made in the Complaint."

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