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Brewer teacher sues school department following claims of LGBTQ discrimination

The Maine Human Rights Commission found hostility directed at longtime teacher and LGBTQ advisor Michelle MacDonald was 'pervasive at least, if not severe.'

BREWER, Maine — A longtime Brewer High School teacher and LGBTQ advisor is suing the school department and several officials for waging "a campaign of harassment" against her because she advocated for the rights of LGBTQ+ students.

Michelle MacDonald, an English teacher at the school since 2007, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bangor Monday claiming she was retaliated against and stripped of her department leadership role because she was a vocal advisor 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. 

Named in the suit are the Brewer School Department, Superintendent Gregg Palmer, Superintendent Cheri Towle, Brewer High School Principal Brent Slowikowski, Director of Instruction Renita Ward-Downer, and fellow Brewer High School English teachers Paul Wellman and Breanne Pelletier.

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

It comes after the Maine Human Rights Commission conducted a lengthy investigation into complaints and released its findings in July 2020 claiming MacDonald did in fact face "discrimination and retaliation" from the school department.

MHRC Investigator Jane O'Reilly wrote, "The record here indicates that the hostile conduct directed at Complainant related to her association with/advocacy for LGBTQ people was pervasive at least, if not severe, and that it was objectively and subjectively offensive."

O'Reilly, however, did not find reasonable grounds to believe Pelletier and Wellman discriminated against or retaliated against MacDonald.

Still, MacDonald's lawyers argued her colleagues, administrators, and others violated her civil rights, First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, and the Maine Human Rights Act. 

They said in discussing LGBTQ+ issues with school leaders and fighting for more training for staff and presentations for students, she was met with resistance. 

One instance detailed in the complaint alleged that there was "hostility directed towards transgender students" at the school, and staff used "deadnames" and incorrect pronouns.

MacDonald claimed she brought concerns to Superintendent Terri Towle in 2017 and Towle "stated 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.'" 

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

When other staff members allegedly shut MacDonald out, it resulted in a "campaign" against her, according to court documents.

It resulted in a complaint filed with Slowikowski in June 2019, signed by 13 Brewer School Department employees.

"The complaint falsely alleged that MacDonald had created 'hostile conditions' and that the 'environment' was a direct result of the following actions by MacDonald," MacDonald's attorney argued. 

Melissa Hewey, an attorney representing the Brewer School Department, vehemently denied any wrongdoing on the school's part, depicting an employee a lengthy feud between MacDonald and others. 

"The Brewer School Department strongly supports the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, and equity and tolerance for all people is one of its guiding principles," she said in a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine. "There are times in any workplace when colleagues disagree, and unfortunately not all interactions are carried out in a kind way."

Hewey stated that Brewer school administrators made attempts to "mediate the interpersonal disputes that arose" between MacDonald and her colleagues insisting that they "treat each other with respect."

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

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