The Brewer High School sign is seen in this 2014 file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

The state’s human rights panel on Monday agreed with an investigator’s finding that the Brewer School Department created a hostile work environment for and retaliated against a teacher when she complained about anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Michelle MacDonald, a longtime English teacher and co-adviser for Brewer High School’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club, filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission in October 2019 against the school department and two fellow English teachers. She alleged that the school department and teachers discriminated against her on the basis of sexual orientation and retaliated against her due to her advocacy for and association with transgender people. 

While the investigator, Jane O’Reilly, found reasonable grounds to support MacDonald’s claims that the school department had discriminated and retaliated against her, O’Reilly said she did not find reasonable grounds that the two teachers had discriminated against MacDonald. She also said in her report that she found no reasonable grounds to find that the school department and teachers had interfered with her rights under the Maine Human Rights Act. 

The five-member Maine Human Rights Commission agreed with all of the investigator’s findings.

The commission voted 5-0 to affirm O’Reilly’s recommendations regarding MacDonald’s two fellow English teachers, and the panel voted 4-1 on her recommendations regarding violations of the Maine Human Rights Act.

O’Reilly did not find that the school department had interfered with MacDonald’s rights because its decision to remove her as an English curriculum leader was a “normal adverse action” and did not “rise to the level of interference,” which requires a higher threshold to demonstrate, she said during Monday’s commission meeting. In addition, the teachers’ actions as employees of the Brewer School Department were “imputed” to the school department, O’Reilly said. 

MacDonald’s complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission came after she had advocated for more LGBTQ-inclusive training opportunities for students and staff. 

MacDonald’s lawyer, Daniel McCue, said in Monday’s hearing that MacDonald had been an English curriculum leader for seven years but was removed from her leadership position after one of the fellow teachers began circulating a petition advocating for her removal and that the other had made disparaging remarks to MacDonald about LGBTQ students.

“It’s our position that it’s illogical to find harassment in my client’s favor…but not to find the ringleaders responsible for the harassment,” McCue said. 

In her report, O’Reilly wrote that she had found that MacDonald’s fellow teachers hadn’t discriminated against her, but did find that the school department hadn’t taken MacDonald’s claims as seriously as the law requires. The school department, however, did investigate after MacDonald filed two internal complaints. 

Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer said last week that the school department was committed to resolving MacDonald’s complaints.

“While we cannot guarantee every interaction unfolds in the way a given person expects it should, we thoroughly investigate each incident whenever it is brought to our attention and take appropriate actions,” he said. 

The Maine Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate due to sex, gender identity and/or expression. The Maine Human Rights Commission is the state agency that investigates complaints of discrimination.

Filing a complaint with the commission is often a step toward a lawsuit or a legal settlement.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk team for the Bangor Daily News and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School whose recent work has appeared in Strikewave, Defector, and The American Prospect....