Doctoral student sues Pacific University for discrimination
Woman with cerebral palsy says professors at the university's Hillsboro campus made her arrange blocks and singled her out in front of her class to talk about her disability.
A former Pacific University doctoral student is suing the university, saying professors discriminated against her because she has disabilities.
Rebekah Breyer, of Hillsboro, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Jan. 9, alleging the private university discriminated against her because she has cerebral palsy.
A movement disorder, cerebral palsy affects motor skills, often causing people with the condition to display exaggerated reflexes or involuntary motions. The condition hasn't stopped Breyer from earning a master's degree in psychology but according to the lawsuit, Breyer's professors regularly questioned her ability to complete the course because of her disability. Breyer eventually dropped out of the program because of pressure from professors, she said.
Breyer enrolled in Pacific's then-named School of Professional Psychology in 2015. The school, located at Pacific's Hillsboro campus, 222 S.E. 8th Ave., was renamed the School of Graduate Psychology earlier this month.
During a visit to the campus, Breyer said that she was asked to contact professors for a follow-up interview with staff to "have a more detailed conversation about essential job functions specific to graduate students."
During that interview, school officials said that they were "concerned" with Breyer's ability to complete the program because of her disabilities and asked her about her motor control, such as whether she was able to arrange blocks, according to the lawsuit. Breyer alleged that the officials asked her "how children and adults react to her" and how she expected to obtain an internship with her disability.
Breyer was admitted to the program and she and her family moved to Oregon from Colorado to attend the university in August 2015, but her attorney, Shenoa Payne, wrote in the lawsuit that the school's staff never supported the idea.
"Although Ms. Breyer had been technically accepted into the program, it became evident that she would never be truly accepted," the lawsuit claimed.
After arriving, Breyer says she met with university staff to discuss her discomfort over how her application process went. She alleges that she told the university that the way she was treated was likely illegal, and staff at the school admitted that they had no training or knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act."
Breyer said that things got worse once classes began. During one class, a professor allegedly singled Breyer out and asked her to explain her disability to the class as part of the lesson.
When she complained to the university again, she said, university officials asked her if the school was the "right fit" for her and suggested other career paths that she could pursue, which would accommodate her physical limitations.
One professor said she didn't feel comfortable giving Breyer a practicum recommendation, saying she wasn't sure Breyer could do the work.
According to Breyer, the university had no evidence that Breyer was unqualified or incapable of doing the work, but based their opinions on speculation about her disability.
Breyer said that in October 2015, she asked the university to show examples of students performing the assessments and asked for an assistant to complete the manual dexterity portions of the test. The school responded by saying Breyer would have to pay for the accommodation she requested. The complaint argues the university likely knew she couldn't afford to pay for those accomodations.
Breyer withdrew from the school on Nov. 3, 2015.
The lawsuit is seeking economic damages of an unspecified amount, but said she'd like the school to pay for the cost of her 2015 tuition, as well as expenses paid, interest on loans she received for schooling and future economic impairment she received related to the delay of obtaining her degree. Breyer said she'd like the school to also pay for her moving costs and the cost of mental health treatment she received as a result of the discrimination.
Breyer said she suffered from emotional distress, mental suffering, loss of confidence, anxiety, depression and humiliation related to her alleged treatment at the school.
Breyer said she'd like to be reinstated at Pacific University, and asks that the university require staff to undergo training on how to treat students with physical disabilities.
In a statement written to Pamplin Media Group, Payne, Breyer's attorney, said that her client doesn't want what happened to her to happen to others.
"Ms. Breyer's goal simply has been to have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain her education, like any other student," she said. "Unfortunately, Pacific University denied Ms. Breyer that opportunity. Ms. Breyer trusts in the civil justice system ?nd hopes that her action will prevent others from experiencing the sae injustice."
Pacific University spokesman Joe Lang declined to comment on the case, saying that the university "does not comment on the active legal matters."
By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
Pamplin Media Group
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