Teacher says she got harassed for standing up for LGBTQ kids. Now she’s suing the district.

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Gay-Straight Alliance school bus at Seattle Pride. Photo: Jon Gilbert Leavitt on Flickr

A high school teacher in Maine has filed a lawsuit, claiming her school district created a hostile environment when she advocated for LGBTQ students. English teacher Michelle MacDonald’s complaint says she suffered a “campaign of harassment” and was “stripped” of a leadership role in her department, where she worked since 2007.

Her filing comes after a two-year investigation from the Maine Human Rights Commission which found there were “reasonable grounds” to believe she was discriminated against while at Brewer High, despite her consistently strong performance evaluations and serving as a Curriculum Leader prior to the 2019-2020 school year.

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MacDonald herself has a transgender child and had many conversations with the Brewer School Department to ask for more training for staff, presentations for students and other steps to create a supportive environment for LGBTQ students.

She was inspired to push for change after meeting with Superintendent Cheri Towle, along with her former co-adviser, and for a GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) to discuss concerns of hostility directed towards transgender students in January 2017. For example, trans students reported that some teachers were using their dead-names and incorrect pronouns.

She and her co-adviser explained the harm misgendering can cause, and that students have a legal right to be recognized as their correct gender. Towle allegedly argued that it could not be true that students in younger grades had the right to go by their “preferred gender” because the students could “change their mind.”

MacDonald tried to personalize the conversation by bringing up her own experience with her young child, stating that the Brewer School Department needed to support all students of all ages. The lawsuit says Towle appeared uncomfortable and defensive with the conversation.

The lawsuit names Towle and Brewer School Department as defendants, along with Superintendent Greg Palmer, Brewer High School Principal Brent Slowikowski, Director of Instruction Renita Ward-Downer, and English teachers Paul Wellman and Breanne Pelletier as defendants, both of whom MacDonald got on well with until 2017.

John Gause, MacDonald’s attorney, told the Blade that her cause is “important for protecting the rights of LGBTQ students” and MacDonald “hopes to prevent what happened to her from happening to someone else who stands up for their rights.”

Other incidents in the lawsuit include MacDonald being approached by students who were members of the school’s GSA, of which MacDonald serves as a co-advisor. They were concerned about being excluded from the yearbook. Upon addressing the issue by contacting fellow teacher and yearbook advisor Pelletier, she was told that the GSA would not be in the yearbook because it was a “support group” and did not do “anything worth taking pictures of.”

When MacDonald reported the issue to the Brewer School Department and Pelletier was told that the yearbook must include GSA, she started treating MacDonald differently, giving her dirty looks, calling her “drama queen,” and no longer responding to her emails.

Furthermore, Wellman allegedly suggested the GSA advisor position was an adult pushing her beliefs on students. He had also told MacDonald he viewed people in the LGBTQ community as “unnatural” and as “mutation[s] of nature.”

As it now stands, the Maine Human Rights Commission sided with MacDonald’s unlawful discrimination and retaliation claims. However, it was only a partial victory. The panel cleared Wellman and Pelletier of MacDonald’s discrimination allegation.

MacDonald is seeking lost wages and benefits following her claims that her rights were violated under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the Maine Human Rights Act and the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. As well, she wants relief for emotional distress and reinstatement to her former position as the English department curriculum leader.

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