After nearly a year, East Brunswick High School teacher Richard Koenigsberg has won his battle against the district over a request for hearing assistance at graduation.
Koenigsberg, a 30-year veteran of the high school, had a simple request: for the district to provide him with a CART reporter at the June 16 graduation ceremony.
The CART reporter, or Computer Assisted Real-Time Translation reporter, offers a real-time display of text typed by a stenographer.
Koenigsberg doesn’t use American Sign Language (ASL) but instead reads lips, and he has normal verbal skills.
He said hearing isn’t an issue when he’s teaching his sociology and film classes or during one-on-one meetings. It wasn’t even an issue during staff meetings with multiple speakers because the previous administration worked with him, he said.
But when the administration changed four years ago, they were no longer sensitive to his “being profoundly deaf,” he said.
Koenigsberg filed charges with the Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) against the East Brunswick Board of Education, and he received a settlement in January 2015 that required the district to provide a CART reporter at all required meetings.
It also said the CART would “be made available during additional meetings at the discretion of the Administration provided they are requested by Complainant in a timely fashion.”
A deaf East Brunswick High School teacher said the district refused to accommodate him at graduation.
Per the settlement and according to documents, Koenigsberg requested a CART reporter be provided for the high school’s 2015 graduation ceremony, which he said teachers are encouraged to attend.
He said he made the request because it would be impossible for him to read lips at graduation because the speakers would be too far away, and he wanted to support his students in the same way his hearing colleagues can.
But he said the requests were ignored, and he was ultimately assigned to proctor exams on graduation day.
Koenigsberg didn’t give up. Three days after the 2015 graduation, he requested a CART reporter be provided for the 2016 ceremony.
Documents show his many requests over the following year were either ignored or denied.
“Although the district provides CART services for professional development and meetings as specified in the agreement, there is no requirement to provide CART services for the graduation ceremony,” superintendent Victor Valeski wrote in one reply.
Koenigsberg asked again.
“I should be afforded the same opportunity as the hearing staff to participate and have the same experience as my colleagues,” he wrote. “The legal agreement states that I have the right to request CART for other events as they occur.”
We reached out to the district on Koenigsberg’s behalf.
Valeski said that because everything that’s part of graduation is available in written form, the district “didn’t understand what the CART reporter was going to provide that we weren’t already providing.”
But Valeski promised to review the matter.
After our story was published, Koeningsberg said he received substantial support from the general public and from groups that support the hearing impaired.
His current students started a petition drive.
Former students came forward, too.
Andrew High, a 2005 EBHS grad who uses a bi-lateral cochlear implant for his hearing, said he asked for a meeting with the superintendent after he saw the article. No one responded to his request.
“I wanted to explain to them how CART is really an effective tool as I had CART in high school and was very successful with it,” said High, who also used a CART in college.
He called Koenigsberg a mentor, as does Stephen Cormier, another 2005 graduate.
Cormier said it was Koenigsberg’s sociology class that helped him find his passion, and a career.
“This is a simple question of equity and access,” Cormier said. “It’s on East Brunswick to do the right thing — which is to respectfully fulfill Mr. K’s request for a CART so that he can adequately partake in the EBHS graduation ceremony.”
On May 2, Koenigsberg received an email saying the district was arranging CART services for graduation but nothing had been finalized.
Graduation is coming up soon, so last week, we checked in with Valeski, the superintendent.
He confirmed a CART reporter would be provided for Koenigsberg, and he said there would also be closed captioning on the Jumbotron at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, where the ceremony will be held.
Koenigsberg said he’s pleased with the decision, but he called the experience “bittersweet.”
“I am happy that the administration will do the right thing in providing accommodations for me,” he said. “However, it is disappointing to me that I had to get Bamboozled to advocate for me in getting the administration to listen to me.”
He said his students will be happy to learn he can share graduation with them, and he offered a “shout out” to the students who started the petition on his behalf.
“A great big thank you to my students for their respect, sensitivity, and for their support in getting involved,” he said. “It is a valuable learning experience for the students to see that getting involved is important.”
A teacher will always be a teacher.