News Articles about the BSA's Case regarding ADA Accommodation for the Handicap

From the Orlando Sentinel, Sunday, November 18, 2007

Disabled Scouts Left Without Troop
Group loses charter after leader’s discrimination suit

By Kate Santich - Sentinel Staff Writer

Perhaps the Scouts of Titusville's Unit 700 don't quite fit the historic mold. Perhaps, they admit, you couldn't picture some of them strapping on a rucksack and hiking through the wilderness. After all, one has cerebral palsy. Another suffers from the effects of a rare childhood stroke. Several have learning disabilities or asthma.

In Unit 700, though, they seemed to thrive. One of their leaders was a strong-willed woman in a wheelchair. But after the woman filed a lawsuit charging the Boy Scouts' Central Florida Council with violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, things began to get very, very unpleasant for Unit 700.

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, where the Scouts were holding their meetings, suddenly kicked them out, citing reports of "divisive" leadership. The group lost its charter with the council, the regional governing body of the Scouts. And most recently, the woman and her husband -- Palma and Keith Rasmussen -- were sent letters ordering them to "immediately sever any relationship you may have with the Boy Scouts of America."

Keith Rasmussen, a 40-year-old former New York City paramedic and an Eagle Scout, had been part of the organization for 32 years. "This has been a witch hunt," said Palma Rasmussen, 48. "I mean, they've made my existence just miserable, which is bad enough. But now the kids are suffering. They should never have taken it out on the kids."

The council sees it differently. It insists the recent turmoil has nothing to do with the Rasmussens' lawsuit, although the organization recently countersued the couple. Council President Jeffery Jonasen said the Rasmussens were not "appropriate leaders," but he would not explain precisely why. "First of all, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church made a decision," Jonasen said. "It appeared they'd had enough. And that's unfortunate, but our reaction to that was to try to get as many options for those kids as we could find in the local community. . . . And those options are still sitting there -- willing and waiting to take those kids in."

The options are openings in other troops, several in Titusville itself, that have agreed to make room for the former Scouts of Unit 700. But the Scouts don't want a new troop. They want their old one back. "The Rasmussens are great," said Chris, a 16-year-old Scout who did not want his full name used for fear of retribution. "I was in another troop before, and I was unhappy because of the way they treated my brother [who has a learning disability]. I felt they were shutting out disabled kids."

A pack, a troop, a crew

The Boy Scouts organization is as complex as any branch of the military and comes with its own lingo. Unit 700, for instance, doesn't just refer to a troop of 10 to 18-year-old boys, but also to a Cub Scout pack for younger boys and a co-ed "venturing crew" for teenagers and young adults. The Rasmussens helped lead all three -- a pack, a troop and a crew -- and at one point had about 75 Scouts, including the Rasmussens' two kids. Before the couple moved to Florida five years ago, they were Scout leaders in New York for eight years.

"To say that scouting was a huge part of our lives is an understatement," Palma Rasmussen said. "We lived the Scouts." Palma was director of a Scout day camp for two years. She helped train leaders. And when, in January 2006, she was chosen to go to the prestigious Order of the Arrow retreat at a Lake County Boy Scout camp, she felt honored. By the time the weekend was over, though, she felt humiliated. Rasmussen, who suffers from a systemic autoimmune disease, said she was denied use of her power wheelchair and assistance dog, and that her special dietary needs were ignored -- although she had notified the council months in advance that she had medical problems. After the camp, Rasmussen complained. That spring, the Scouts fired her as a district commissioner.

Jonasen counters that the camp didn't need to be accessible: "It has been well-settled in other lawsuits around the country that a Boy Scout camp is not a public facility that must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. . . . But not withstanding that, we do our best to make sure that as many kids can use our facilities as we possibly can." After all, he said, the national organization's policy is to welcome Scouts with all sorts of physical, mental and emotional disabilities.

Accounting sought

In its countersuit, the Central Florida Council also seeks a court-ordered accounting of Unit 700's finances -- saying it "cannot independently verify" whether the Rasmussens have made "improper use of its funds."
The suit alleges the Rasmussens cashed $370 in checks made out to the unit and forced their Scouts to buy clothing and mementos the Rasmussens had embroidered with trademark Boy Scout logos.

"The whole thing is baloney," said Julia Ferrell of the counter claims. Her 14-year-old grandson has been a Scout for eight years, most recently with the 700. "No one was forced to buy anything. The council is just looking for any little picayune thing to try to get rid of the Rasmussens -- who could not be better leaders."

Mary Colvin, a 16-year-old Venturer from Crew 700, agreed: "I see them as the mommy and daddy of everybody. Everybody is like one gigantic, huge family. It's way better than a lot of other troops." Because the group has no official charter -- which it needs -- some Scouts already have jumped to other troops. But about two dozen kids remain, vowing to wait for a group of their parents to get a new charter. It may be a long wait. The parents accuse scouting officials of dragging their heels -- refusing to send the necessary paperwork or to meet with them, as one official had initially promised in an e-mail.

"The toughest thing I've had to do is tell my kids that these people who are in charge have not kept their word," said Steve Barton, who has two boys in the unit. "It's not the kids' interest the council has at heart-- it's their own personal interest. I feel like the Boy Scouts picked a bad fight."

From the North Brevard Beacon, Vol. 5 No. 5, Thursday, November 29, 2007

Disabled Woman Sues Boys Scouts
Church throws out unit, Troop without charter

By Susan Walden - Publisher & Editor

The squeaky wheel doesn’t always get the grease. Sometimes it’s looked upon as a troublemaker that needs to be removed. So is the case of a Titusville disabled woman, her husband and the Scouts of Unit 700. Palma Rasmussen, with the help of her husband Keith, took over leadership of the Boy Scout Troop, Cub Scout Pack and also formed a Venturing Crew, consisting of boys and girls, several years ago. Many of the Scouts have physical, mental, emotional and learning disabilities and didn’t feel comfortable in other units until they came to Unit 700.

But now the Scouts’ laughter has turned to tears. After Palma, who is wheelchair-bound, filed a lawsuit in June against the Boy Scout’s Central Florida Council stating that they violated the federal Americans with
Disabilities Act, the Rasmussens have lost their membership with the Boy Scouts of America and their charter organization Good Shepherd Lutheran Church kicked them off their grounds. The Council has also filed a countersuit against the Rasmussens. Now there’s no Unit 700 and the children, who want to stay together with the Rasmussens, are being forced by the Council to find other units. The parents are behind the Rasmussens all the way, to the point that they’ve created a parent organization and have filed more than once with the Council to form a new Unit 700, but the Council is dragging its heels, the parents complain.

Rasmussen has several physical disabilities, which include systemic rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus she’s had since birth. After several unsuccessful kneecap replacements, her legs cannot bend. She also has diabetes and Reynaud’s Disease affecting her circulatory system. The Rasmussens were no strangers to Scouting when they moved to Florida in 2002 from Staten Island, N.Y. “They had a written policy they adhered to in New York and there were no problems,” she said. She noticed what she describes as a disregard for those with disabilities when after two years of being the Cub Scout Day Camp director and hosting the events at Titusville High School because it’s “barrier free” (handicapped accessible), she was informed in 2005 by the district director that it would be moved to a Cocoa location that wasn’t handicapped accessible. “When I started up the barrier-free camp, children with disabilities started coming,” Rasmussen said. “When the Council runs something it should be for everyone.”

As the years unfolded, Rasmussen says she was unfairly singled out by two Council executives in particular, and situations became worse and worse. In October 2005, Rasmussen paid $75 to attend the Fall Council Camporee but was informed she should reconsider because the terrain was rough and in a remote area and wouldn’t be able to negotiate her wheelchair. She couldn’t attend and her money wasn’t refunded.

After a commissioner’s meeting that year, one of the Council executives told her she had to clean the toilets before she left. Rasmussen’s Council boss became incensed and told her that Rasmussen would do no such thing and they left. But nothing could compare to what happened to Rasmussen in January 2006, an event that is the basis for the federal lawsuit.

Camp nightmare

Rasmussen and her son were nominated and elected respectively in November 2005 to participate in the Order of the Arrow, the National Honor Society of the Boy Scouts, held at Camp Lanoche in Lake County in January 2006. Rasmussen filled out the proper registration forms citing her handicaps and dietary needs because she is lactose intolerant due to medicine and is diabetic. She called the lodge advisor advising him of her challenges. He told her someone would call her. Since no one had after some time passed, she called the lodge advisor again who assured her everything would be fine. When she arrived with her family and service dog, Kenny, Rasmussen was greeted with, “Oh God, the Rasmussens are here,” by the district commissioner, she said. “She had been giving me a problem all along,” said Rasmussen. “I felt she’d have to deal with it.” Rasmussen shrugged it off. Rasmussen was told there were no accommodations for her and that her dog, which she depended upon, had to go because one of the leaders had allergies. An official began making improvised accommodations, which included her sleeping in the Health Lodge. However, the lodge she soon found out wasn’t wheelchair accessible and didn’t contain handicapped toilet and shower facilities, which means there were no railings.

As the event began, one official demanded loudly that Rasmussen’s backpack be searched “for contraband,” which was unorthodox to the event. Her guide told him it was unnecessary and inappropriate. She was assisted out of her wheelchair and into a golf cart then driven to the campfire area and to the lodge to sleep. “I didn’t see my wheelchair again until 9:45 Saturday night,” Rasmussen said. “My walker didn’t fit through the door where I was supposed to sleep,” she said. Since there were no handrails for her, she couldn’t use the toilet.

In the early morning, she was assisted in the golf cart and driven to a remote wooden picnic table for two and a half hours without her wheelchair or trip to the bathroom. Then the rest of the group gathered near the table and she was given a hardboiled egg and an eight ounce container of milk, which she couldn’t drink because of her lactose intolerance. Rasmussen was then helped to a hut to perform her assigned work. She was given a broken chair and had to request a milk cart to prop her legs on. “Although individuals were in and out of the hut during the day, I was there mostly alone. No one took me to lunch at the dining hall or to go to the bathroom still,” she said. The event required that everyone be given seven scant meals during the day.

Well after lunch one of the camp rangers asked Rasmussen if she’d had lunch. When she told him she hadn’t, he became angry and immediately ordered a youth to bring lunch to her – a half of a peanut butter sandwich and a cup of drink mix. Soon after (about 5:20p.m.), she became ill and was going into diabetic shock– shaking and sweating. Still no bathroom visit. “At this point my blood sugar levels had dropped very low and I realized I was in trouble.” After a phone call, an official was granted permission to give her a soda and an apple. The evening meal wasn’t until 10 p.m.

The fire ring was next, where everyone sits on lowest logs. Rasmussen said she was ordered to get out of the golf cart and sit on the log for three and a half hours. “This was incredibly painful. I felt it was an act of hate because they knew my disabilities and the pain I have,” she said. “The pain was excruciating in my joints plus it was 35 degrees and my feet were numb from the cold.” After the evening event, she was taken by golf cart back to the dining hall where she finally utilized the bathroom since the day before.

Several minutes later she was informed by several youth and adults that the chapter chief commented, “That fat (f-word, b-word). We had to make all those arrangements for her.” Rasmussen said none of the officials made a point to correct the conduct. “This was disgusting and despicable,” Rasmussen said as tears filled her eyes. “To do these things to me because I’m in a wheelchair is just horrible. No one corrected this man or took away his membership, but they took away mine?”

Council officials contend that Camp Lanoche and any other camps under them for that matter do not have to accommodate handicapped people because they are a nonprofit organization. “The American Disabilities Act doesn’t apply to campgrounds like that,” said Jeffrey Jonasen, Central Florida Council president in a phone interview. However, according to the Council charter, an agreement between the organization and BSA, it states, “The Council specifically accepted its obligation to cooperate with the Boy Scouts of America and its representatives in promoting the program of the BSA in accordance with the provisions of the … policies, and rules and regulations of BSA.” Those regulations of BSA state in the Scout Camp Code of Conduct that they will “obey all U.S. Federal laws, as well as local and state laws.” BSA’s National Camp Standards, which represent the minimum level of care expected,” state they must make certain that the camp is “in compliance with all … Americans with Disability Act standards. …”

“We want to accommodate everyone but we’re not going to put sidewalks in the woods,” Jonasen said. Handicapped-friendly Florida Boy Scout parks aren’t unheard of, says Rasmussen. “Look at Gulf Ridge, for example. It’s barrier free.”
Like any big organization, the Boy Scouts have many documents, bylaws and standards. The Rasmussens are quick to point out the Scout Camp Staff Code of Conduct, that states that hazing has no place in camp - that no one shall “engage in behavior that constitutes discrimination or harassment … including disability of an individual.”

After Rasmussen talked to the Council about changing their discriminating ways to no avail, she contacted the EEOC and asked for mediation. The Council refused, she said. “Between that and then our attorneys trying to iron it out, we tried four times officially and they refused,” she said. The Rasmussens say the same two Council executives, according to the church’s visiting pastor, talked to the church Council. Nov. 1, they then issued a letter stating they no longer would be a charter of Unit 700 citing “divisive leadership.”

After her story aired Nov. 5 on TV evening news, two Council executives came to the Rasmussens door and handed them letters revoking their membership. “We reserve the right to revoke registration whenever there is concern that an individual may not meet the high standards of membership that the BSA seeks,” the letter cites. On the same day, the BSA countersued the Rasmussens. They claim there was a misappropriation of funds, specifically three checks endorsed and deposited incorrectly. “This is just ridiculous. They’re just grabbing at straws here and we can prove that we did absolutely nothing wrong,” said Rasmussen.

The children are upset and the parents are fed up with the way they’ve been treated. Rasmussen kept the way she was treated quiet so she wouldn’t affect the others, says Jeanette Manning, who has a 16-year-old with a challenge. “Palma is hardly a complainer,” she said. “When she and her husband see an injustice they want to make it right. She’s not just standing up for herself; she’s standing up for the right of all kids who are affected by this. Scouting isn’t just for those who aren’t disabled.” Manning said she and others who even are Council executives have said it’s the “good ole boy” syndrome in the Council.

“How do I tell my child that a church threw out his unit, especially after they laid dozens of pounds of sod and planted trees and bushes for them?” She said parents had a meeting with the church committee, but nothing happened. Pastor Alan Koch, Good Shepherd’s interim pastor said he didn’t want to comment on the issue, when contacted by telephone. Two other committee members were unavailable for comment.

One 16-year-old thinks what happened is petty. “I think it is ridiculous and very stupid,” said Mary Colvin, Venturing Crew member. “Just because we have disabled in our unit, they treat us like that. We’ve had so much fun and have done a lot that most don’t do. Then they tell us we’re not a Boy Scout Troop anymore? All of us want to stay. Why take it out on us?”

The parents have gotten together and officially requested to become a unit again under the leadership of other parents but there paperwork seems to go nowhere. Jonasen begs to differ. “No parents have filed for a new unit.”

From Florida Today, Friday, November 23, 2007

Disabled Scout Leader, Council Battle in Court
Charter revoked, Troop disbanded after Titusville woman claims bias

By Jeff Schweers - Florida Today

For years, life in the Rasmussen household has revolved around Scouting. They built Cub Scout and Boy Scout units with boys who left other Troops because they felt mistreated because of their mental and physical disabilities. Both parents were unit leaders, and Palma Rasmussen sat on a Councilwide review board.

But now the Titusville couple find themselves frozen out of Scouting. The Central Florida Council terminated Palma and Keith Rasmussen's memberships and revoked their unit charter, forcing some 30 Scouts to join other area Troops. The church where they conducted their meetings kicked them out.

Palma Rasmussen, who uses a wheelchair most of the time because of various physical ailments, said she and the other families are being retaliated against because of a civil rights lawsuit she filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act against the Central Florida Council. She's asking for compensatory damages, but all she said she really wants is her Troop membership and charter back.

The Central Florida Council has denied violating her rights or failing to accommodate her disabilities. The organization also responded in a counter-claim that she was dismissed from her position and had her membership revoked because she misused Scout funds and didn't follow proper procedures. "We feel her lawsuit has no merits," said Jeff Jonason, president of the Central Florida Council. As a private volunteer organization, he said, the Boy Scouts of America is not subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nonetheless, the organization tries to accommodate those with special needs, he said. "Our intention is to make activities open to all the kids," Jonason said. "It's the outdoors, though, so it can't be 100 percent accessible."

It's now in the hands of the federal courts, and the odds are stacked against the Rasmussens. The courts historically have maintained the Boy Scouts of America's exemptions from federal civil rights laws as a private membership organization. "I think this is crazy," said their daughter, Rebecca, 18. She was president of the unit's Venturing Crew. "I'm hoping we get the justice deserved to us."

Camp nightmare

The Rasmussens first got involved in Scouting eight years ago, when they lived on Staten Island. They moved to Titusville five years ago, after Sept. 11, when terrorists flew two hijacked commercial aircraft into the World Trade Center towers across the bay from their home. They moved because they couldn't handle "living in the shadows of what's not there anymore," Keith Rasmussen said. They got a charter to start a unit in Titusville, and before long, other parents who had children with disabilities started coming to Troop 700. They had learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, behavioral problems, Attention Deficit Disorder and physical disabilities. "They left because they weren't treated well there, and they were treated better here," Palma Rasmussen said. "So this was a refuge."

In January 2003, Palma Rasmussen became a member of the Canaveral District Committee, which oversees the units in central and northern Brevard County and is directly under the Central Florida Council, which oversees 17 units in seven counties. She also became a staff member of the Cub Scout Roundtable Commission until November 2003, when she became a Roundtable commissioner. She served in that position until April 2006.

And then came Camp La-No-Che and the Order of the Arrow event. Palma Rasmussen had been nominated in November 2005 by other leaders in her Troop to be inducted into the Order of the Arrow. According to the Boy Scouts Web site, the Order of the Arrow "recognizes Scouts and Scouters who best exemplify the Scout Oath and Law in their daily lives." She told her superiors that she had physical disabilities that required certain accommodations so she could participate.

She arrived at Camp La-No-Che on Jan. 13 and the nightmare began for her. She had no access to her wheelchair for roughly 26 hours, and was placed in a room where the doorway was too narrow for her wheelchair. Without her wheelchair she couldn't use the cramped bathroom and shower and was dependent on others to get around in a golf cart.

On the morning of Jan. 14, she was awakened at 6 a.m., helped into a golf cart and taken to a remote picnic area where she waited until 8:30 a.m. for others to arrive and have breakfast. She was then carted to the quartermaster hut, where she said she was left mostly alone for eight hours without any bathroom relief or food and water.

At the campfire ceremony later in the evening, several people hauled her off the golf cart and placed her on a log around a campfire, a difficult and painful position for her since her knees are fused and don't bend. She said she sat there for three hours. Finally, at 9:45 p.m. she was allowed to use her wheelchair again. "Every request she made for an accommodation was met," Jonason said.

Lawsuit filed

On April 10, 2006, Palma Rasmussen was asked to step down from her position on the Roundtable Commission. The Central Florida Council said she had repeatedly failed to follow outlines provided or use appropriate training methods for other leaders. Rasmussen petitioned the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Nov. 29, 2006, a year after she was nominated for the Order of the Arrow. The EEOC gave her the go-ahead to sue the Boy Scouts on March 27, 2007. She filed her lawsuit in federal court in June.

Soon afterward, the BSA revoked her membership and that of her husband, an Eagle Scout. They then revoked the unit's charter. In November, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church ordered the Troop off the premises. In hindsight, Palma Rasmussen said, she can see a pattern of refusing to accommodate people with disabilities.

When she wanted to run an accessible day camp for disabled kids in 2004, the leadership was reluctant, but let her do it, she said. She said she had to beg them to let her do it again in 2005, but in 2006 they turned her down. While on the Roundtable Commission, parents with disabled children started asking how to accommodate their special needs. Rasmussen said she asked about literature about disability awareness for the parents but the leaders discouraged her from providing the literature that the BSA puts out on the very topic. "The handbook says the roundtable is for discussing these issues," she said. "They have a disability awareness merit badge."

Rasmussen said the problem lies within the Central Florida Council. In particular, she and other parents say the problem lies with the district's executive, Kevin Litt. Litt said he didn't want to get into personal attacks. "We're here to help boys, not fight amongst adults, and that's what I'm trying to focus on," Litt said. Besides, he said, he asked Palma Rasmussen to be on the Roundtable, and worked with her on the day camp. "Suddenly I don't like disabled people?" he asked.

This information reposted from the notes section of Margaret Downey's facebook, where she is currently most active.