Linguistics professor Nora Erro-Peralta under federal investigation


Illustration by Ivan Benavides

Wesley Wright, Business Manager

Linguistics professor Nora Erro-Peralta is under federal investigation for an 11-month-old discrimination case, brought against her by a former student. Florida Atlantic alumnus Thomas Whatley — who has both bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder — alleges that Erro-Peralta not only made light of his disabilities, but also refused to excuse the absences tied to them.

Erro-Peralta, who declined to comment, taught Intro to Spanish Literature in the fall of 2014. Whatley was registered with Student Accessibility Services — formerly called the Office for Students with Disabilities — and missed three of her classes.

His explanation: Even a slight change in his medicine dosages affects his ability to function. When his doctor altered his prescriptions, he had to miss class to allow his body to adjust.

Whatley, who was a double major in Spanish and linguistics in the fall of 2014, says his dosages changed three times during the semester. When he tried to explain one of his absences, Whatley says Erro-Peralta was dismissive.

According to Whatley, his professor graded him unfairly after SAS directed her to honor his absences, and that she failed him out of spite.

“It was her being told what to do, and she didn’t want to do it,” he said.

After failing her class and exhausting what he considered all of his options, he filed a complaint against FAU and Erro-Peralta through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The office enforces civil rights laws like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of disability. It only pursues a complaint once it determines that it is both timely and bolstered with sufficient information.

It opened the case in April of 2015 after taking a look at Whatley’s evidence. The office is investigating allegations of discrimination and retaliation.

Department spokesman Jim Bradshaw confirmed the case is still open, but would not comment further. SAS accommodated Whatley in his classes for 2 1/2 years.

“She was the only professor I ever had an issue with,” he said.


Later in September of 2014, Nina Whatley — Thomas’ mother — emailed SAS Director Michelle Shaw to intervene.

“Please ask Professor Peralta not to ever mention or discuss a child’s disability in the presence of other students,” the email read. “No, Tom does not have a physical disability, he’s not in a wheelchair, or blind, but he has a severe disability just the same.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against anyone with a disability. The national law does not specify the legality of asking a student about their disabilities in class and neither does the FAU faculty handbook.

Erro-Peralta knew Whatley registered with SAS, but was not told why. “We do not disclose a student’s disability,” said SAS Director Shaw. “If the student wishes to do so, they can.”

Whatley’s mother continued, in the same email: “She was asking for medical records, and doctor’s notes, and that she was not going to excuse the absences … She needs to be informed, this is the way the system works. The ADA was started to protect people with disabilities and the information is supposed to be kept private, and the system works the same for all students, it cannot be interpreted by each individual teacher.”

FAU has an ADA committee, but its purpose is centered around ensuring that people with disabilities can access campus buildings. None of its members responded to requests for comment.

Whether the student discloses their disability or not, the professor must acknowledge the approved accommodations, according to SAS policy.

Erro-Peralta signed a document at the beginning of the semester informing her of the accommodations Whatley required.

“The Academic Accessibility Agreement (AAA) letter that students provide to their professors verifies that they are registered with Student Accessibility Services (SAS) and their approved accommodations needed for the course,” said Shaw in an email.

Whatley’s accommodations for her class included unlimited excused absences, extra test time if needed and a notetaker.

Erro-Peralta’s syllabus mandates that students can have no more than two unexcused absences or they risk having their overall grade lowered. Whatley felt compelled to explain private details of his condition to his professor in an attempt to keep her from docking his grade for exceeding the two-absence threshold.

“Your three absences are valid, and no documentation is needed,” Shaw said in a September of 2014 email to Whatley, who says his professor told him flatly that she did not think he had a disability.

He claims she also said, “No me importa,” when he tried to explain his situation. In English, the phrase translates to “I don’t care” or “it is not important.”

“She told me I needed to start trying harder in class,” he said. After class one day, Whatley says Erro-Peralta asked for medical records and notes from his doctor.

According to Whatley, she also called SAS to inquire as to what the exact nature of his disability was and to see if he was attending other classes.

“I really don’t see why that’s any of her business,” he said.

Attending other classes earlier in the day was no issue, Whatley said. But when his medicine wore off toward the end of the day, he’d miss Erro-Peralta’s session because he didn’t feel like he could function in class, which took place from 4 p.m. to 5:20 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

FAU alumna Angeline Ramirez was in Erro-Peralta’s class with Whatley. He complained to her several times during the semester.

“He always had his documentation,” Ramirez said. “I know he had a condition. He let all his professors know he’d be absent. She was the only one who didn’t accept the absences.”

Erro-Peralta’s insensitivity was a recurring theme in the class, according to Whatley. On one occasion, she called on him to answer a question on material covered in a previous class — a class he’d missed because his medicine wore off earlier in the day.UP14_peralta3side

Upon explaining this to Erro-Peralta, she responded by making light of the issue and pretending to play the “world’s smallest violin.” “I’m playing the violin for your tears,” she reportedly said.

A female student from the class, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that Erro-Peralta did in fact play the “world’s smallest violin” several times.

“She has done that in class,” she said. “She has a way of doing that, if you miss a class or something.”

Whatley said, “I was crying outside in the hallway.” When registered students have an issue with their teacher, a staff member from SAS reaches out to the professor to discuss the issue, according to Shaw.

Though he acknowledges that he missed a lot of material in the classes he did not attend, Whatley has no doubt that he would have done well in the class if the professor had given him a fair chance. “I’ve had classes with graduate students before and passed,” he said.

In November of 2014, Whatley’s attorney, Gary Isaacs, suggested the idea of gauging the fairness of Erro-Peralta’s grading technique by letting another professor look at Whatley’s exams. The linguistics department declined.

“Their response boiled down to their hesitancy to step on their professors’ toes,” Isaacs said, in reference to the department.

After failing the class in the fall of 2014, Whatley approached Erro-Peralta and Chairwoman Marcella Munson of the linguistics department as part of the grade-appeal process. Neither considered amending his grade, according to Whatley.

He climbed the ladder, approaching Assistant Dean Barclay Barrios of the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters and eventually provost Gary Perry to no avail.

This was when he decided to take his complaint to the federal government. Whatley says the delay with the case is largely because the university is not responding to the U.S. Department of Education.

“The problem is that it’s been difficult to get a response from FAU,” he said. Media relations representative Lisa Metcalf said in an email to the University Press that the school does not comment on pending litigation.

Attorney Claudio Campo — who works for the DOE — told Whatley that if the DOE rules in his favor, Erro-Peralta could lose her job. Campo did not respond to requests for comment.

Whatley dropped his Spanish major and took a course at the University of Central Florida to replace the credits he missed in Erro-Peralta’s class.

Once a double major in Spanish and linguistics, he graduated from FAU in fall of 2015 — a semester later than expected — with a major in linguistics and a minor in Spanish. He teaches English in central Europe today.

“I can’t be the only one [who was discriminated against],” he said. “There needs to be some repercussions for Erro-Peralta.”

Wesley Wright is the business manager of the University Press and one of its senior reporters. To contact him regarding this or other stories, he can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter.