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Former teacher sues Albemarle County schools for racial harassment

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Agnor-Hurt Elementary School

Emily Mais, who was assistant principal at Angor-Hurt Elementary School from 2018 to September 2021, says she was harassed due to her complaints of the school’s anti-racism training.

A former Albemarle County schools administrator claims she was forced to resign after a “slip of a tongue” created a racially hostile environment for her at work, according to a new lawsuit against the school division.

Emily Mais, who was the assistant principal at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School from 2018 to September 2021, alleges she was retaliated against and experienced harassment from other division employees when she complained about anti-racism training.

When she complained, she was “branded a racist, severely and pervasively harassed, relentlessly humiliated and ultimately compelled to resign from a job that she loved to preserve her mental health,” attorneys argue in the complaint.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national nonprofit based in Arizona, filed the lawsuit in Albemarle County Circuit Court last week. The nonprofit also is representing a group of parents who are suing the school system over its anti-racism policy. A hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for Friday.

Division spokesman Phil Giaramita said the school division has not been formally served with the lawsuit yet.

“We have not had a full opportunity to review the allegations,” he said. “We look forward to responding in a timely manner in the future in the appropriate legal forum.”

According to the 45-page complaint, the division’s implementation of its anti-racism policy and the associated training created a “racially hostile and divisive environment.” Within that environment, Mais said she experienced hostile and racially harassing behavior from division employees.

She’s alleging in the lawsuit that the school system discriminated against her viewpoint as well as violated her right to free speech and the Virginia Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race.

She’s seeking back pay and other damages, according to the complaint.

“Instead of training faculty members to embrace students of all races, Albemarle County school officials are using a curriculum that promotes racial discrimination,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson, director of the ADF Center for Parental Rights, in a statement. “Emily believes every person is made in the image of God and entitled to equal treatment and respect and refuses to participate in using harmful ideology to indoctrinate students, teachers, or staff.”

Mais’ issues began when the division started implementing its anti-racism policy, adopted in 2019. The policy was designed to eliminate racism and improve outcomes for students who historically lag behind white and more affluent peers.

In a November 2020 staff orientation, Bernard Hairston, the school system’s assistant superintendent for school community empowerment, told staff in a pre-recorded message that they “needed to think about whether they were on the ‘antiracism school bus, or if you need help finding your seat and keeping your seat, or if it’s time for you to just get off the bus,’” according to the complaint.

Mais took that to mean that any staff member who took issue with any aspect of the policy would likely lose their job, according to the complaint.

Mais and others at the school received training for teachers based on Glenn Singleton’s “Courageous Conversations about Race,” according to the complaint. That book was recently named by the Virginia Department of Education as a resource promoting “inherently divisive concepts.”

According to the complaint, the training “stereotyped, demeaned, and dismissed white people as perpetrators of systemic racism.”

The plaintiff also claims that the training was conducted in a racially hostile manner.

“For example, it called for participants to discuss inflammatory topics, such as the role of ‘white privilege’’ in their lives, in breakout rooms where the conversation could not be monitored by a trained administrator,” attorneys wrote in the complaint.

“In these breakout rooms, white staff members attempting to participate were shut down or dismissed in front of other staff members and told they could not understand the topic because of the color of their skin,” the complaint states.

The training placed white employees in a no-win situation, according to the complaint.

“They were being instructed to engage with the curriculum and to ‘speak their truth,’ but, if they did so honestly, they were chastised and told their race prevented them from understanding. Moreover, their comments were dismissed and they were harassed based on their race,” attorneys wrote in the complaint.

In a June training session, Mais said “colored people” when she meant “people of color” during a discussion on staff demographics. The lawsuit argues the comment was a “simple slip of the tongue” and she apologized, according to the complaint.

After her apology, a teaching assistant at the school chastised Mais during the training and several times afterward.

“[The] verbal abuse was so severe that Ms. Mais received multiple communications during the training session and following it from other staff members expressing their support for her,” according to the complaint.

The teaching assistant also allegedly slandered Mais at work, “openly cursing about her and calling her vulgar names at work, telling other employees she was a racist and that she intentionally demeaned Black people, and trying to turn other employees against [Mais],” according to the complaint.

Other employees were allegedly afraid to defend her out of fear of retaliation, according to the complaint.

Following the June session, Mais had two meetings with the assistant and Hairston regarding her use of “colored people,” according to the complaint. She left the second meeting, which was held Aug. 6, in tears, according to the complaint.

Mais complained to several people, including her principal and human resources, about harassment and her broader concerns with the race curriculum.

“Ms. Mais explained that the harassment was causing her substantial emotional distress, preventing her from focusing on her job, and making it impossible for her to effectively manage the employees involved in the harassment,” according to the complaint.

After several meetings with human resources officials, Mais concluded that the division would not take any action to address her situation.

She submitted her resignation Aug. 29. Before her last day, she was asked to make a public apology in front of the school’s staff, according to the complaint. Mais claims in the suit that the apology was necessary in order for her to maintain good standing with the division.

She initially wanted to address her broader concerns and the emotional toll the situation had taken on her, but she was allegedly told she couldn’t discuss that during a meeting about her apology, according to the complaint.

“The message from the participants at the meeting to Ms. Mais was clear: She was not allowed to voice, even mildly, the mistreatment she had experienced because of her race and in retaliation for her opposition to the curriculum and the way she was being treated,” attorneys wrote in the complaint.

The attorneys described Mais’ public apology as a ritual shaming.

Mais’ attorneys argue that her resignation was a “constructive discharge,” meaning that she didn’t leave voluntarily but because the employer created a hostile work environment.

In November 2021, she filed a discrimination charge with the Virginia Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights, but that office didn’t take any action, according to the complaint.

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Katherine Knott is the K-12 education reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 422-7398, kknott@dailyprogress.com, or @knott_katherine on Twitter.

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