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Maine Human Rights Commission investigator says Brewer High School discriminated, retaliated against LGBTQ advisor

Hostility directed at advisor and longtime teacher Michelle MacDonald was 'pervasive at least, if not severe,' the investigator wrote.
Credit: NEWS CENTER Maine
Brewer High School is one of many K-12 and higher education schools around the state hoping to welcome students back to campus in the fall 2020 semester, despite COVID-19.

BREWER, Maine — An investigator for the Maine Human Rights Commission has found reasonable grounds to believe the Brewer School Department discriminated against and retaliated against a longtime high school teacher who serves as co-advisor for the school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club.

Longtime high school English teacher Michelle MacDonald filed a complaint against the school department and fellow English teachers Breanne Pelletier and Paul Wellman on Oct. 29, 2019, alleging discrimination beginning in 2017 and continuing to at least March 2020.

MHRC investigator Jane O'Reilly recommended a finding of no reasonable grounds to believe Wellman or Pelletier discriminated against or retaliated against MacDonald.

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."

MacDonald has taught at Brewer High School since 2007 and, until 2019, was a curriculum leader. She also serves as co-advisor for the school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club, and according to O'Reilly's report, is a longtime advocate for additional staff training and other measures in order to create a safe environment for LGBTQ students.

MacDonald alleges the school department discriminated against her based on sexual orientation due to her association with and advocacy for persons who are transgender by subjecting her to a hostile work environment and retaliated against her for reporting discriminatory behavior by staff and students by replacing her as curriculum leader after she made the reports.

MacDonald has filed two internal complaints with the school and believes she lost her position as curriculum leader in 2019 in retaliation for reporting discrimination against LGBTQ students.

Among the findings of fact in O'Reilly's report to the commission:

  • In a meeting with the GSA about tolerance for LGBTQ slurs at school, the principal responded that each teacher would respond to a word like [slur] differently and he could not control that response."
  • The report details numerous reports by MacDonald to the principal in which students used other LGBTQ slurs, said that being transgender was an "illness," as well as cases in which the principal said he would try to change behavior, but "Obviously, I can make no promises."
  • When MacDonald complained to Pelletier in 2017 that the GSA was not included in the school yearbook, Pelletier said the group was "a support group and do not do anything worth taking pictures of."

MacDonald told O'Reilly that students reported that Wellman encouraged students to "openly debate the topic of transgender identity and gay marriage in class." Wellman denied this, but MacDonald provided to the investigator emails from one of Wellman's students in 2015 and 2016 in which she wrote she felt unsafe in his class.

"What you said yesterday in class about [a female celebrity who was transgender] still being a man was very rude and disrespectful. I have at least two friends we are transgender, and it made me very upset when you were implying that somebody else could tell them who they are and who they're supposed to be. Also what you said about t-rexes and transgender was like equating homosexuality and bestiality."

In 2016, the student wrote that Wellman upset her when he "made a comment about gay marriage being disgusting" in class.

In response, Wellman wrote that he hoped to resolve the issues because he felt he should be "free from having to defend myself on this platform every month or two." O'Reilly wrote, "This statement strongly suggests it was an ongoing topic of discussion in his class."

The school department has denied the allegations, and told O'Reilly it investigated MacDonald's reports of bullying and harassment and found them unfounded. The school department claims MacDonald's reports result from her "personality conflicts with coworkers."

"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 wrote. "Complainant credibly alleged that students and professional colleagues repeatedly, over the course of months and years, directed hostile comments at her and made complaints about her professionalism when she advocated for lodged objections about inappropriate treatment of LGBTQ students."

Of the claims by the school that MacDonald was not reappointed curriculum leader because she was at the center of a "communication issue," the investigator wrote, "it seems at least as likely as not that the only issues were around Complainant objecting to conduct that would be offensive to those in the LGBTQ community."

MacDonald did not return a call for comment on Tuesday.

Brewer Superintendent of Schools Frank Molinar nor his attorney, Melissa Hewey, immediately returned a phone call Tuesday.