Lawyers representing Fairfax County public schools filed motions to dismiss and split up a federal lawsuit against the school system and a principal who teachers allege discriminated against them based on religious affiliation, gender and race.
The case centers on the alleged actions of Bailey’s Elementary School Principal Marie Lemmon, who remains in charge of Bailey’s, which has 1,400 students and is the largest elementary school in the county. A former assistant principal, two former teachers and a student filed a lawsuit against the school system last month alleging that the principal treated them unfairly.
Rachel Charlton, a former assistant principal at Bailey’s, is Jewish and claims that while she was pregnant Lemmon treated her harshly. Former teachers Yolanda Calhoun and Shyrone Stith and J.C., a minor who attended Bailey’s, allege that Lemmon, who is white, discriminated against them because they are black.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria because Bailey’s receives federal Title I funding, as many of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty. The vast majority of the students are Hispanic and qualify for English as a second language training.
Charlton claims that Lemmon, who joined Bailey’s in 2012, insulted her for breast-feeding and limited her opportunities for promotion after she returned from maternity leave. Calhoun alleges that Lemmon replaced her on the staff with a younger and less-qualified white teacher, and Stith claims that the principal decided against hiring him for a permanent position because he would not fit in at the school as a black man. The teachers and the student are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the school system.
Schools spokesman John Torre has said that the administration will not comment on the pending lawsuit, saying only that the school system “has a strict anti-discrimination policy and takes all allegations of discrimination very seriously.”
The two motions filed Oct. 24 — the first time the county has publicly opposed the allegations — ask for the court to dismiss the lawsuit and to sever the claims between Charlton and the other defendants. Attorneys for the county say that the lawsuit should be thrown out largely on a technicality: They say the teachers are suing the wrong entity.
The lawsuit was originally filed against Fairfax County public schools. But the county school system claims that the system itself cannot be sued. Instead, it is usually the Fairfax County School Board, the 12-member elected government body, that addresses such litigation.
The administration’s attorneys also say that even if the teachers had sued the correct entity, the School Board is immune from paying out punitive damages in federal cases.
The schools’ attorneys also seek to separate the claims made by Charlton, Calhoun, Stith and the student. The lawyers say that the defendants “involve differing issues of law and facts” and want the court to proceed on three separate claims, with Calhoun and the student’s remaining together, since the juvenile is Calhoun’s stepdaughter.
Lemmon has received positive reviews on teacher job satisfaction surveys and has been credited by administration leaders for assisting in a smooth transition to a new school building.
But the teachers claim that she made disparaging remarks in their presence. Charlton alleges that Lemmon said that women should not breast-feed because “we do not live in a third-world country like Africa,” according to the lawsuit.
The administration’s attorneys say that “rude, abrupt, and arrogant” behavior does not necessarily support an employee’s claims of a hostile work environment, citing previous legal precedent. The lawyers also point out that Charlton was offered the opportunity to transfer from Bailey’s and declined.
“That conduct is hardly consistent with a severe and pervasive” hostile work environment, the school system’s attorneys argued in their motion.