Brewer teacher sues school department over LGBTQ discrimination allegations

The Maine Human Rights Commission found hostility directed at longtime teacher and LGBTQ counselor Michelle MacDonald to be “pervasive at least, if not severe.”

BREWER, Maine — A longtime Brewer High School teacher and LGBTQ counselor is suing the school department and multiple officials for waging “a campaign of harassment” against her for advocating for LGBTQ+ student rights.

Michelle MacDonald, an English teacher at the school since 2007, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bangor on Monday, claiming she was retaliated against and stripped of her role as head of the department because She was a vocal counselor for the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club.

According to court documents, when she complained to school administrators about the retaliation, she claimed they turned around and blamed her.

The Brewer School Department, Superintendent Gregg Palmer, Superintendent Cheri Towle, Brewer High School Principal Brent Slowikowski, Director of Instruction Renita Ward-Downer, and the other English teachers at the school high school Brewer Paul Wellman and Breanne Pelletier are named in the lawsuit.

The complaint seeks damages for back wages, lost benefits and emotional distress.

This comes after the Maine Human Rights Commission conducted a lengthy investigation into the complaints and released its findings in July 2020, saying MacDonald had in fact been subjected to “discrimination and retaliation” from the from the school department.

MHRC investigator Jane O’Reilly wrote: “The record here indicates that the hostile conduct directed at the complainant related to her association with/advocacy for LGBTQ people was at least pervasive, if not serious, and that it was objectively and subjectively offensive.”

O’Reilly, however, found no reasonable grounds to believe that Pelletier and Wellman discriminated against or retaliated against MacDonald.

Yet MacDonald’s attorneys argued that his co-workers, administrators, and others violated his civil rights, First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and Maine’s human rights law.

They said that in discussing LGBTQ+ issues with headteachers and fighting for more training for staff and presentations for students, she encountered resistance.

A case detailed in the complaint alleged that there was “hostility towards transgender students” at the school, and that staff used “dead names” and incorrect pronouns.

MacDonald claimed she raised her concerns with Superintendent Terri Towle in 2017 and Towle “said it could not be true that students in younger grades had the right to choose their preferred gender because students could “change their mind”.

The complaint also detailed alleged issues with high school principal Brent Slowikowski and pushed back against the Alliance for Gender and Sexuality, including not being included in the school yearbook as a recognized club.

When other staff members allegedly excluded MacDonald, it sparked a “campaign” against her, according to court documents.

This culminated in a complaint filed with Slowikowski in June 2019, signed by 13 employees of the Brewer School department.

“The complaint incorrectly alleged that MacDonald created ‘hostile conditions’ and that the ‘environment’ was a direct result of MacDonald’s subsequent actions,” MacDonald’s attorney said.

Melissa Hewey, an attorney representing the Brewer School department, vehemently denied any wrongdoing on the part of the school, describing an employee in a long-running feud between MacDonald and others.

“The Brewer School Department strongly supports the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, and fairness and tolerance for all is one of its guiding principles,” she said in a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine. “There are times in any workplace where co-workers disagree, and unfortunately not all interactions are conducted in a caring manner.”

Hewey said Brewer school administrators tried to “mediate any interpersonal differences that arose” between MacDonald and his colleagues, insisting they “treated each other with respect.”

“We are confident that the School Department and the individual and former employees that Plaintiff has chosen to sue will prevail in this case and Brewer is committed to ensuring that student learning and safety remain its number one priority. one,” Hewey wrote.

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