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

A Brewer High School teacher is suing the school department, claiming that colleagues and administrators harassed her and stripped her of a leadership role because she stood up for LGBTQ students’ rights.

The lawsuit from Michelle MacDonald, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Maine, follows a finding by the Maine Human Rights Commission last summer that the Brewer School Department had created a hostile work environment for and retaliated against the English teacher when she complained of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

MacDonald’s lawsuit names the Brewer School Department, Superintendent Gregg Palmer, Brewer High School Principal Brent Slowikowski, former Superintendent Cheri Towle, Director of Instruction Renita Ward-Downer and English teachers Paul Wellman and Breanne Pelletier as defendants.

MacDonald, a co-adviser of Brewer High’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club, alleges that the defendants discriminated and retaliated against her, violating her rights under the First Amendment, the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Maine Human Rights Act and the Maine Whistleblowers’ Protection Act.

MacDonald is seeking back wages, lost benefits, relief for emotional distress and reinstatement to her former position as the English department curriculum leader, which included a stipend that her attorney, John Gause of Bangor, said she lost when she was stripped of her title.

In the 35-page complaint, Gause said that MacDonald faced hostile treatment from Wellman and Pelletier starting in 2017 after she advocated for the GSA club’s inclusion in the school yearbook and for more LGBTQ-inclusive teacher training after students made offensive comments about LGBTQ people.

Pelletier, who was in charge of the yearbook, stopped responding to MacDonald’s emails and treated her with hostility, Gause said. Wellman had made disparaging comments about LGBTQ people in his classroom, the lawyer said.

MacDonald said both teachers also began approaching other teachers at the end of the 2018-19 school year to sign a petition as part of a “concerted effort to file a formal internal complaint against MacDonald, motivated in part by her advocacy for LGBTQ rights,” according to the court complaint.

At the same time, Slowikowski, Towle and Ward-Downer decided to give the English department curriculum leader position to Pelletier for the 2019-20 school year “because of MacDonald’s LGBTQ advocacy, protected oppositional conduct and reporting, WPA-protected activity, and her association with LGBTQ individuals,” the complaint said.

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Melissa Hewey, a lawyer for the Brewer School Department, said the school department supports LGBTQ rights and considers equity and tolerance as guiding principles. She said she is confident the school department will prevail in the lawsuit.

“There are times in any workplace when colleagues disagree, and unfortunately not all interactions are carried out in a kind way,” Hewey said. “Brewer administrators attempted to mediate the interpersonal disputes that arose between [the] plaintiff and her colleagues and at all times insisted that employees treat each other with respect — that is what a responsible employer does and it is not a violation of discrimination laws.”

MacDonald’s complaint also said that Slowikowski and Towle — and later Palmer — had failed to address Wellman and Pelletier’s treatment of her when she complained about them. In addition, it said she had been stripped of her role as English department curriculum leader after holding the position without problems for seven years before it was given to Pelletier.

After successfully filing a union grievance, MacDonald was given a co-curriculum leadership role alongside Pelletier, the complaint said, but the hostile treatment continued after MacDonald first filed a human rights commission complaint in August 2019.

The Maine Human Rights Commission partially sided with MacDonald last summer, after an investigator found that the Brewer school district had created a hostile work environment for and retaliated against her when she complained about anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

However, the panel did not support MacDonald’s assertion that Wellman and Pelletier had discriminated against her nor that they or the school department had interfered with her rights under the Maine Human Rights Act.

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.