MARIEMONT, Ohio -- A longtime high-school French and Spanish teacher is suing the Mariemont school district, alleging it discriminated against her because she has a disability -- she has a phobia of young children.
Maria C. Waltherr-Willard, 61, says the district in which she worked for 35 years discriminated against her when it reassigned her in 2010 from its high school to its junior high and then pressured her to resign.
The suit claims the discrimination is based on her age and her disability, a rare phobia called pedophobia, which in this context means an extreme fear or anxiety around young children. Waltherr-Willard's lawsuit claims she has suffered from the condition since the 1990s and that Mariemont had made assurances to her and her lawyer that she would not have to teach young children.
Documents filed in the case by her medical doctor, psychiatrists and psychologists note that she experiences stress, anxiety, chest pains, vomiting, nightmares and higher than healthy blood pressure when she's around young children.
A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed three of the six claims in her lawsuit, claims which alleged Mariemont violated an implied contract to keep her from young students.
District Judge Herman J. Weber said the district lived up to its written contract -- with the teachers union -- and that Waltherr-Willard would still be employed had she not resigned.
He did not rule on the other main allegations of the suit, giving the district's attorneys more time to respond to them. If the case goes to trial, it's scheduled for February 2014, according to court documents.
Waltherr-Willard, a Greenhills, Ohio, village council member since January 2012, declined to comment recently on her lawsuit, referring questions to her attorney, Bradford Weber, who did not return phone calls for comment.
Experts in phobias say that irrational fear or extreme anxiety around children is a rare but recognized anxiety disorder, although it's unclear how many people have been diagnosed with it.
"It's a tough phobia. You can't really get away from (children) when you're outside," said Dr. Caleb Adler, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati. "When you're a teacher, it may not be an issue with older students."
The term pedophobia also can refer to a fear of dolls, a distaste for children or, in the case of parents, an obsession with one's own children.
Waltherr-Willard was born in Cuba and traveled to the United States in 1969 at age 18. A naturalized citizen, she was a native Spanish and French speaker who became fluent in English and Italian. Mariemont hired her in 1976 to work at its high school, teaching Spanish and French classes.
In 1997 the district asked her to teach a Spanish enrichment class to fourth- through sixth-graders, but she and her attorney at the time, Alphonse Gerhardstein, objected to it, claiming medical reasons. The district accommodated her, agreeing to keep her at the high school.
She began having trouble in 2009, when she discussed with parents the likelihood that the district would eliminate teacher-led French courses at the high school.
Parents complained, and in December of that year, and district officials warned her that if she continued talking to parents about the French changes, her job would be at risk and they would put a memo in her personnel file.
Waltherr-Willard alleges they retaliated against her by transferring her to the junior high to teach 7th and 8th grade Spanish in 2009 and for the 2010-11 school year.
By January 2011, Waltherr-Willard said, she had successfully rebuilt Mariemont Junior High's Spanish program but her blood pressure was often at dangerous levels. She asked again, in writing, to return to high school teaching.
Imhoff responded in writing that there was no open position but he'd keep her request on file.
Waltherr-Willard retired in March 2011, and in July of that year she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. The commission dismissed her complaint in March 2012, giving her the right to sue the district, which she did in June.
In court documents Mariemont officials say they did not expect Waltherr-Willard to resign when she did. They said she was replaced at the high school by teachers who also were in their 50s.