School board appeals bias suit won by teacher

October 31, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

The Howard County Board of Education asked a Circuit Court judge yesterday to overturn the verdict in a discrimination lawsuit won by a former Centennial High School English teacher.

If Judge Lenore R. Gelfman does not reverse the decision, the school board wants a new trial or to have the award of damages to Michelle Maupin capped at $100,000.

In July, a jury awarded Maupin $237,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for harassment she said she experienced. The school board is responsible for $225,000 of the damages, while former Centennial Principal Lynda Mitic must pay $6,000, English department leader Margaret Polek $5,000, and current Principal Scott Pfeifer $1,000. The three educators are being represented by the school system, said Mark Blom, the school board's attorney.

"We don't think that there was enough evidence to support her claim," Blom said. "The school system strongly believes that a supportive environment was in place at Centennial High School for Miss Maupin.

"The individual defendants, in particular, went out of their way to help and support Miss Maupin. We think that the jury reached the wrong conclusion."

Maupin is confident but frustrated by the school board's decision to appeal the jury's decision, said her lawyer, Mike Coyle.

"She feels that their position in regards to her reflects a refusal to acknowledge the things that went wrong at Centennial and the refusal to change," Coyle said.

Maupin, who is African-American, alleged that problems began shortly after she arrived at Centennial in August 2003 when white parents complained to Mitic about Maupin's teaching style, according to court documents. Maupin accused Mitic of making racial remarks about her instead of supporting her, the documents say.

Maupin also alleged that after she complained about Mitic, she was harassed by colleagues who interrupted her classes, questioned her teaching methods and ignored her at school events.

The school system should consider transferring some teachers at Centennial to improve the atmosphere, Maupin said yesterday.

"There are a lot of things that they can do so that every child feels that they have a place in the academic environment," said Maupin, who left Centennial in 2005. She now teaches English at Wilde Lake High School.

"It is our position that there were systemic problems in the school and the school system that created fertile ground for the harassment that we alleged to occurred," Coyle said.

john-john.williams @baltsun.com

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