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9th-grader files federal lawsuit against Knox County over gum-chewing, food consumption in class

The suit alleges the student has an extreme reaction to the sound of chewing gum and eating food. She's represented by the same lawyer suing the district over masks.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — A student at L&N Stem Academy filed a lawsuit against Knox County for the school's alleged failure to make reasonable accommodations for a disorder, which she says is causing her to miss around "half of her educational time" and creating physical and emotional exhaustion. 

The ninth-grader identified as "Jane Doe" in the federal lawsuit has misophonia, a disorder that triggers extreme reactions to sounds like chewing gum or eating food in her case.

The suit states the pathways in her brain causes Jane Doe "extreme distress upon hearing these sounds, to the point that she cannot tolerate them and must escape." It also states the condition is made worse by "a migraine headache disorder and hyperacusis, an unusual tolerance to ordinary environmental sounds." 

Dr. Michael Green is an internal medicine and pediatric physician. He does not specialize in Misophonia but he is familiar with the disorder. Due to the complexity of it, he understands how it can be difficult for people to understand, especially if they haven't experienced it.

"It's not like a rash or something like that, where somebody has an easy ability to understand," Green said.

It's a way the sound is processed in the brain.

"That sensory input changes how we feel. And, that's where it becomes more than just a quirky thing. But actually, maybe a disability or at least a diagnosis where you can't function when you hear a certain sound," Green said.

The suit claims L&N teachers are allowed to pick whether or not to enforce a no eating or chewing gum rule and said the school's administration "will not recognize the need for all classes to modify their stances of eating food and chewing gum as an accommodation."

Jane Doe reportedly has also missed time in the classroom "finding an 'empty room,' or else sitting by herself outside for more than 50% of her educational time, simply to escape the eating and chewing of gum in academic classes," according to the suit. It also has prevented her from attending an elective called "Genius Hour," which allows food for the entire 80-minute class as it overlaps with lunchtime. 

The student previously attended the Episcopal School of Knoxville, which prohibited gum chewing and eating in class, the lawsuit states. But ESK doesn't offer classes beyond eighth grade, so the child last year shifted to the STEM Academy for ninth grade.

Credit: WBIR

The lawsuit alleges her parents have requested bans on eating food and chewing gum in her Knox County classrooms, saying "they have never seen an official policy stating a right to eat and chew gum in classes."

Some teachers have reportedly claimed the school has a "policy or rule that prevents them from prohibiting eating and chewing gum." 

Her parents put in a written request to the district on Dec. 8, 2021, according to the lawsuit. On Jan. 3, 2022, the district reportedly said: "it 'found no evidence' her rights were being violated."

According to the suit, on Jan. 14, the assistant principal reportedly told her parents: "In terms of Genius hours, based on our school policy and school rules we do not prohibit the eating or drinking of food in class."

The school has also reportedly told her "to forego certain academic classes and take additional 'study halls.'"

The lawsuit said Jane Doe "needs a reasonable accommodation of a ban on eating food and chewing gum in the academic classrooms," citing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs responded on Twitter, using #GumGate, saying in part:

"My fear when the court essentially ruled the ADA required government to not only mandate reasonable physical accommodation at public places but also to regulate third party behavior/conditions was that it would open the floodgates for new ADA lawsuits. It's beginning. 

#GumGate"

The lawyer who filed the suit also has sued the district over masks and was not available for comment at this time.

The county deferred questions on the suit to the law director. 

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