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School waged ‘campaign of harassment’ against teacher who stood up for LGBT+ kids, lawsuit claims

Maggie Baska February 8, 2022
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Several LGBT+ posters celebrating Pride month are posted on a glass partition in a high school

High school students made posters for Pride month. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty)

A Maine teacher is suing a school district alleging officials targeted her with a “campaign of harassment” because of her advocacy of LGBT+ rights. 

Michelle MacDonald – an English teacher at Brewer High School in Maine – filed a complaint against the Brewer School Department and several school officials she claims acted against her because she advocated for LGBT+ students.

The school district and defendants have denied all the claims. 

In her complaint, MacDonald alleges her colleagues created a “hostile work environment” starting in 2017. 

The lawsuit claims that MacDonald was approached by students concerned the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) was being “excluded from the yearbook”.

The students told MacDonald, who was a co-advisor of the school’s LGBT+ group, that they had heard “other clubs being called over the loudspeaker to have their yearbook photos taken but not those in the GSA”. 

So she contacted Breanne Pelletier, a fellow English teacher who was the yearbook advisor. According to the complaint, Pelletier, who is named as a defendant in the complaint, told MacDonald that the GSA would not be included because it was a “support group” and didn’t do “anything worth taking pictures of”. 

The LGBT+ club was photographed for the yearbook after MacDonald complained to the Brewer School Department. But the lawsuit alleges that Pelletier treated MacDonald in a “hostile manner” after that incident, giving her “dirty looks” and calling her a “drama queen”. 

Later that year, MacDonald requested that the GSA advisor position become a paid stipend consistent with other club advisors at the school. 

She says she reported to the principal that a colleague, Paul Wellman, who is also named as a defendant, believed the GSA shouldn’t be paid because it was “like a religion” similar to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The lawsuit alleges that Wellman also thought MacDonald was “influencing students with [her] beliefs”.

According to the lawsuit, MacDonald asked principal Brent Slowikowski, another defendant, to give teachers more training on LGBT+ issues. But, at some point, Slowikowski allegedly told MacDonald that she was “too close to the issue” because she has a son who is trans.

The lawsuit alleges that the hostility increased, and that Pelletier and Wellman “engaged in a concerted effort to file a formal internal complaint against MacDonald” at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. 

This was reportedly “motivated in part by her advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights”. 

MacDonald’s lawsuit also claims that she “stripped of her department leadership role”.

According to the complaint, the role was given to Pelletier “because of MacDonald’s LGBTQ advocacy, protected oppositional conduct and reporting, WPA-protected activity, and her association with LGBTQ individuals”.

MacDonald’s filing followed a “nearly two-year investigation” by the Maine Human Rights Commission that “found reasonable grounds to believe that unlawful discrimination

Melissa Hewey, an attorney for the defendants, denied all of the allegations in a statement to the Los Angeles Blade

“Our school department is very much committed to education around gender expansiveness, so the suggestion that they would retaliate against this person for advocacy is just contrary to everything that they do,” Hewey said. 

She added that MacDonald’s case is an “example of colleagues who had some interpersonal disagreements”, and that is “not a matter of discrimination”.

But John Gause, MacDonald’s attorney, told Maine Public that the teacher is seeking relief from discrimination and retaliation. He added she is also seeking back pay, lost benefits, damages and reinstatement to her former position as a curriculum leader.

“The administration treated these conflicts as being two-sided conflicts instead of recognising that what Michelle was doing was protected and attacking her for doing it was not,” he said. “Hopefully through this case there will be a greater awareness of that issue.”

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