A Brewer High School teacher is suing the school department, saying co-workers and administrators harassed her and stripped her of leadership because she stood up for LGBTQ student rights.
Michelle MacDonald’s lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Maine, follows a finding by the Maine Human Rights Commission last summer that the Brewer School department created an environment hostile workplace and retaliated against the English teacher when she complained of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
MacDonald’s lawsuit names Brewer School Department Superintendent Gregg Palmer, Brewer High School Principal Brent Slowikowski, former Superintendent Cheri Towle, Director of Instruction Renita Ward-Downer and teachers at English Paul Wellman and Breanne Pelletier as defendants.
MacDonald, co-counsellor of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance club at Brewer High, alleges that the defendants discriminated against and retaliated against her, violating her rights under the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Maine Human Rights Act and Maine Law. Whistleblower Protection Act.
MacDonald is seeking back pay, lost benefits, relief for his emotional distress, and reinstatement to his former position as head of the English department’s curriculum, which included a stipend his lawyer, John Gause of Bangor, said she lost when she was stripped of her title.
In the 35-page complaint, Gause said MacDonald faced hostile treatment from Wellman and Pelletier beginning in 2017 after advocating for the GSA club’s inclusion in the school yearbook and for more LGBTQ-inclusive teacher training after students made offensive comments about LGBTQ people.
Pelletier, who was in charge of the directory, stopped responding to MacDonald’s emails and treated her with hostility, Gause said. Wellman had made derogatory comments about LGBTQ people in her class, the attorney said.
MacDonald said the two teachers also began approaching other teachers at the end of the 2018-19 school year to sign a petition as part of a “concerted effort to file a formal internal complaint against MacDonald, motivated in part through his advocacy for LGBTQ rights.” according to the court complaint.
At the same time, Slowikowski, Towle, and Ward-Downer decided to give Pelletier the position of English department curriculum leader for the 2019-2020 school year “due to the LGBTQ rights advocacy of MacDonald, protected oppositional conduct and reporting, WPA-protected activity, and association with LGBTQ people,” the complaint states.
“There are times in any workplace where co-workers disagree, and unfortunately not all interactions are conducted in a friendly manner,” Hewey said. “The directors of Brewer attempted to mediate in the interpersonal conflicts that arose between [the] the complainant and her co-workers and have at all times insisted that employees treat each other with respect – that is what a responsible employer does and it is not a violation of discrimination laws.
MacDonald’s complaint also said Slowikowski and Towle — and later Palmer — failed to address Wellman and Pelletier’s treatment of her when she complained about them. Additionally, he said she was stripped of her role as head of curriculum for the English department after holding the position smoothly for seven years before it was handed over to Pelletier.
After successfully filing a union grievance, MacDonald was given a leadership role in the parallel program alongside Pelletier, according to the complaint, but the hostile treatment continued after MacDonald filed an initial complaint with the Human Rights Commission in August 2019.
The Maine Human Rights Commission partially sided with MacDonald last summer after an investigator found the Brewer school district had created a hostile work environment and retaliated against her when she complained of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
However, the panel did not support MacDonald’s claim that Wellman and Pelletier discriminated against him or that they or the school department interfered with his rights under the Maine Human Rights Act. .
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