When Dominique Seaman and her family moved to Orting four years ago, they were hoping for a fresh start in a new community with affordable housing.
But as a freshman at Orting High School, she says she was humiliated by students and teachers because of her short stature and disabilities. Seaman made that complaint in a lawsuit filed in Pierce County Superior Court this month.
Seaman says the emotional distress caused her to move from the Puyallup Valley community. She was homeschooled for a time before returning to public school in North Bend, where the family used to live.
In a claim filed with the school district prior to the Nov. 4 lawsuit, Seaman asked for $1 million in damages.
The Orting School District, in court filings, says it didn’t discriminate and denies most of the lawsuit allegations. But officials were aware of the Seaman family’s concerns at the time Dominique attended school there. Among the steps taken by the district were apology letters and mandatory teacher training.
Seaman, who is now 18, was born with Kniest Syndrome, a rare disorder that causes a form of dwarfism resulting in short stature and skeletal abnormalities. She is just under four feet tall.
Kniest Syndrome can lead to arthritis and other problems. While surgery has enabled Seaman to walk, she uses a wheelchair for increased mobility. She also has impaired hearing. Because of her disabilities, Seaman qualified for extra support in school.
The lawsuit says Orting teachers were aware of incidents at the high school that made her feel “unwelcomed, unaccepted and undesired.” It also claims teachers participated in two upsetting episodes on consecutive days.
Seaman’s complaint says that on March 11, 2010, a student attached a second doorknob to a classroom door, placing it at a low height. Her mom, Deslie Seaman, complained about it in an email that day, according to the lawsuit.
The next day, at a school assembly for the senior auction, the lawsuit says a skit further humiliated the girl. The skit, which involved two teachers, featured kid-sized sports equipment, including baseball equipment and a child’s bike.
Science teacher Denise Thompson told The News Tribune neither the doorknob stunt nor the skit’s diminutive sports references were aimed at Seaman. Thompson said the target was her; the teacher is just under five feet tall and describes herself as “petite.”
The student who perpetrated the doorknob prank did it to the teacher “as an attention-getting behavior,” Thompson said.
Rather than give him attention in front of other students, she said she spoke to the boy and told him his joke could offend other students.
Thompson said she made the boy write an apology note to Seaman. She also said she spoke to Seaman about the incident.
“I told her it was a joke on me,” Thompson said. “I tried to help her recognize that it was something between me and that student and that I would take care of it.”
But Seaman said she was in shock.
“Miss Thompson said it was just a joke, and maybe they were trying to do it at her,” she said in an interview with The News Tribune. “But I didn’t know that. It hurt, because it was in front of everybody.”
Thompson said the skit performed the next day at the assembly was intended to fill time between auction activities. She said the skit, in which another teacher presented Thompson with a child’s small bike, was again aimed at her.
Orting Superintendent Michelle Curry agrees that the jokes were aimed at Thompson. But Curry said she directed both teachers involved in the skit to write an apology letter. She said the district also initiated mandatory teacher training on equity and diversity issues.
Both teachers wrote a letter to Seaman’s parents apologizing for “any harm, embarrassment or disrespect” connected to the skit, and saying they didn’t intend to offend anyone. They also offered to speak with the Seamans.
“We made a mistake, and we will learn, grown and improve as a result,” their letter states.
Seaman and her family say the March 2010 incidents were the final straw that capped a year in which Orting teachers left her feeling frustrated at school. The legal claim also says the school failed to accommodate her disabilities, which the district denies.
“I would go to lunch and go over to my friends, and act like everything was OK,” Seaman said. “Then I would go into the bathroom and cry my eyes out.”
Her mom added: “It made Dominique feel as if she could not do anything right.”
The Seaman family eventually moved back to North Bend, and Dominique graduated from Mount Si High School last spring. She said the atmosphere was different there, and she trusted students and teachers.
Today, she lives at home with her parents, a younger sister and a golden retriever. She’s studying art through a correspondence school.
She said that when others think of dwarfism, they may conjure images from movies or fairy tales. But she wants people to know “we’re human beings. We are just born with smaller bones.”
“Yes, we’re different,” she added. “We’re small, but we are just like everybody else. We have hopes, desires, dreams.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com