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Blind Student Claims Dartmouth College Didn’t Live Up to Its Obligations (Video)

  • Staci Mannella, now a junior at Dartmouth College, is depicted in a December 2015 promotional story on the Dartmouth Sports website. Mannella, a Paralympian equestrian who is legally blind, is suing the college over allegations that administrators did not accommodate her disability, while at the same time using her image for positive publicity.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, May 01, 2017

Hanover — Staci Mannella, a junior at Dartmouth College, is suing the school over allegations that it used her accomplishments as a legally blind Paralympian for publicity but did not properly accommodate her disability on campus.

Mannella’s complaint in the federal U.S. District Court of New Jersey contends that Dartmouth administrators did not provide her with the resources she needed to pursue her degree, including note takers, test aids and versions of classroom materials that she could read.

Dartmouth officials said they have tried to work with Mannella to provide those accommodations, and have moved to dismiss her lawsuit, which was filed last fall and is coming to light now after attempts at mediation failed this winter.

Mannella, who turned 21 this month, was born with achromatopsia, a hereditary disorder that limits her vision to only the faintest perceptions of shadow and light.

Nevertheless, her skiing skills took her to the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, and she is pursuing a pre-med degree in hopes of becoming a veterinarian — feats that Dartmouth has hailed numerous times in public, including in this month’s Dartmouth Alumni Magazine.

“I think that they should be proud to have Staci at Dartmouth,” Rosemarie Arnold, the New Jersey-based attorney representing Mannella, said in a phone interview Friday.

“She is a spectacular human being in every way, and it’s a shame that she has to sue the school to get what she is legally entitled to,” said Arnold, who is also Mannella’s aunt. “And I believe that if the alumni were aware of this, they would be ashamed at what the school has done to her.”

Mannella, who in addition to her skiing has earned accolades as an equestrian, last week directed a request for comment to Arnold.

Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said last week the college has worked to accommodate Mannella.

“Dartmouth disputes the claims that Staci has made in her lawsuit alleging that the college failed to provide the accommodations that she needed to be successful in the classroom,” Lawrence said in an email Friday. “We continue to work with Staci to provide the resources she needs to achieve both academically and athletically. She is a valued member of our community.”

In her civil complaint, Mannella asks for monetary compensation for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, breach of contract, consumer fraud and infliction of emotional distress — an award that could be in excess of $75,000, the suit says.

 
 

She also requests that Dartmouth increase her grades in several science classes where she says she was graded on a curve against sighted students while not receiving proper accommodations.

In one instance, according to the complaint, Mannella repeatedly requested copies of an answer key to a practice test in a format she could read, and did not receive one until after the actual test had been administered. The lawsuit contends her grade suffered as a result.

Among many other failures to accommodate, she had to sit through lectures while the teacher wrote notes on a chalkboard that she could not see, the lawsuit claims.

In high school, where these resources were available to her, Mannella maintained a 3.9 grade point average and earned a 34 out of 36 on the ACT college readiness assessment, the complaint states. When she raised concerns about Dartmouth’s efforts to keep her at an equal footing, she was told she might not be a good fit for the school academically, according to the complaint.

Before enrolling at Dartmouth, a school official promised her “that he would take personal responsibility to make sure she was properly accommodated and that he would be her mobility guide when she arrived on campus,” but that when she arrived little to no preparation had been made for her, according to the complaint.

The complaint also says high-level administrators, including the president of the college, heard her concerns and worked out a plan to better accommodate her — but then did not follow through on its provisions.

“Despite their refusal to provide (Mannella) with legally required accommodations on occasions too numerous to list, Dartmouth touted (her) achievements to enhance its reputation by featuring her and her accomplishments in at least six (6) Dartmouth publications and videos,” the Oct. 27 complaint states.

Dartmouth earlier this month requested that the suit be dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not proven cause to sue for fraud, breach of contract and their other claims.

 
 

Attorneys for the college also asked that the case be moved to New Hampshire from federal court in New Jersey, Mannella’s home state, since the school does not do business there.

The court has yet to rule on Dartmouth’s motions, according to an online docket.

Arnold is a prominent personal injury attorney based in Fort Lee, N.J., who practices there and in New York. The website for her law firm, the Law Offices of Rosemarie Arnold, touts multimillion-dollar settlements and calls her “A Courtroom Bulldog Who Won’t Be Leashed.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.