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Montana college student flunks math, sues school

A Rocky Mountain College art student who flunked and dropped math classes required to earn a degree is suing to force the school to allow her to substitute two non-math courses so she can graduate.

Hannah Valdez's disabilities prevent her from passing two basic math courses — including algebra, calculus, statistics or trigonometry — that are part of the Billings college's general education requirements to graduate with a bachelor of art degree, she said in her federal lawsuit.

Valdez's disabilities include Asperger's syndrome, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyscalculia, which is a mathematics learning disability, her attorney, Donald Harris, said Tuesday.

"They don't understand her disability," Harris said of Rocky Mountain officials. "The stress and anxiety that Hanna feels when she is trying to be successful with math classes affects her other studies, as well."

Rocky Mountain admitted her even though college officials knew her SAT score for math placed her in the bottom 5 percent of all students, the lawsuit said.

She attempted to pass two math courses before requesting to substitute the classes in April 2012, which the college denied.

The college permits a course waiver or substitution in circumstances such as unavoidable conflicts or course cancellations, and it is common in other colleges and universities, Harris said.

She filed a lawsuit in state court, claiming negligence by the school and discrimination under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lawsuit was transferred to U.S. District Court on Nov. 4.

In it, she said she has gone into substantial debt and will incur significant damages if Rocky Mountain prevents her from graduating with a degree because of her mental disabilities.

Barbara Vail, Rocky Mountain's interim academic vice president, said the college values Valdez as a student, takes seriously its obligations to provide access for students with disabilities, and is doing everything it can to help her graduate.

She said the attorney representing the college, W. Anderson Forsythe, plans to file a request to delay the lawsuit while they work out a solution in which Valdez would be tutored by associate math professor Robyn Cummins, who is trained in teaching people with disabilities.

"We are hoping to try and work with her through Professor Cummins to help her meet her requirements," Vail said.

But waiving those requirements is not an option, she said.

"We're very serious that a degree from Rocky means something," she said.

The school has offered Valdez extended time on exams, permission to record lectures, free tutoring and note taking, and to substitute the second of the two required math classes with a course on logic, Forsythe wrote in a court filing Monday.

Harris questioned the usefulness of the math courses for Valdez's career plans of becoming a graphic artist.

"Nobody will say these general education classes are essential to a degree in art," he said.