In federal lawsuit, teacher accuses Amherst schools of violating civil rights, other district policies

LAMIKCO MAGEE

LAMIKCO MAGEE

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-11-2024 6:31 PM

AMHERST — A special education teacher who previously led the teachers union has filed a federal discrimination and defamation lawsuit against the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, its current interim superintendent and its former leaders.

An Atlanta-based civil rights attorney announced Saturday the filing of the 13-count lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Springfield on behalf of Lamikco Magee, currently dean of students at the middle school, related to possible federal civil rights violations and violations of district policies covering discrimination, harassment and bullying.

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Magee, an African American woman, was harassed and defamed, including being retaliated against for advocating for marginalized students experiencing discrimination in the public school system and was also targeted with retaliation for filing grievances and challenging unfair labor practices.

“Defaming educators who courageously advocate for marginalized students is not only immoral, it is illegal,” Arnold Lizana, at the Law Offices of Arnold J. Lizana III, said in a statement. “This lawsuit was filed to hold accountable those who attempt to silence our educators with defamation and other retaliatory tactics. We will fight relentlessly until justice prevails.”

Describing the action as a “multimillion-dollar lawsuit,” Lizana said Monday that there is no specific amount being disclosed in the lawsuit, but that Massachusetts juries have awarded large sums of money to plaintiffs in similar defamation and discrimination cases.

The complaints are made against both the district and former Superintendent Michael Morris, former Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham and interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter, for their actions over a period beginning on Oct. 13, 2022, when Magee complained about or objected to what she saw as discriminatory conduct in the school.

The lawsuit claims those actions against Magee continued through March 20, 2023, when she was passed over for a position in favor of a less qualified candidate, and June 6, 2023, when she was refused an appointment as education team leader. The lawsuit alleges it happened through last fall as well, following a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint Magee filed in August 2023, and with the subsequent public posting of Title IX reports and other associated investigatory reports related to alleged transphobic actions by middle school counselors.

The Title IX investigation into reported discrimination, and the related investigations, began April 14, 2023 after a resident alleged her transgender child had been harmed by the actions of school employees and was potentially suicidal when intentionally misgendered and misnamed by three employees.

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The 13 complaints in the Magee lawsuit include defamation allegations against both Cunningham and Slaughter; retaliatory harassment allegations against the public schools, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, state general laws and the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and Section 1983; retaliatory harassment allegations against Cunningham, Morris and Slaughter under state general laws and the First Amendment; alleged privacy act violations against Cunningham and Slaughter under state law; alleged negligent infliction of emotional distress against Cunningham, Morris and Slaughter; and alleged breach of contract against the schools and Cunningham.

The district is declining comment on the lawsuit, according to Debbie Westmoreland, who handles communication on behalf of the schools.

A general part of the lawsuit states, “plaintiff complained about defendants’ failure to address various violations of law and policy, including internal discrimination complaints, grievances for violations of the non-discrimination clauses in collective bargaining agreements, and unfair labor practice charges for retaliation and discrimination. In response, defendants retaliated through various adverse actions, including termination of her employment.”

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants’ “discriminatory, defamatory, harassing and retaliatory conduct” resulted in damage to Magee’s reputation, loss of employment opportunities, anxiety, fear, insomnia, extreme stress and depression. Magee was forced to take medical leave and is currently under treatment to manage trauma, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also makes specific charges, including regarding the Regional School Committee’s emergency meeting last May 16 when a lengthy discussion about the accusations against the counselors and calls for Cunningham to resign were discussed. During that meeting, flyers were disseminated that the investigatory reports called “highly disrespectful, hostile, and possibly defamatory,” with comments directed toward Magee, as well as making accusations about other staff members practicing witchcraft.

Two days before the flyers were handed out, the lawsuit states that Cunningham was preparing and printing the flyers and also submitted a statement to the School Committee for public comment on May 16, 2023, read aloud by a member of the School Committee, that described Magee as “a woman scorned,” regarding her candidacy for a job opportunity.

One of the complaints against Slaughter in the lawsuit is that the investigatory report’s discussion of the flyer remained posted on the school website, including Magee’s name.

“While the defamatory flyer was eventually replaced with a redacted version, the extreme delay in doing so caused the false and defamatory information to remain accessible to the public for nearly two months,” the lawsuit states.

In addition, Magee nearly lost her job after filing the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint: “Within days of filing an MCAD complaint, on or about Aug. 10, 2023, the defendants locked Magee out of her email and terminated her employment, with no prior notice or warning. After protesting the retaliatory termination, she was reinstated.”

The lawsuit goes on to note that in September 2023, Magee applied for and was appointed to the position of dean of students, but was denied a promotion to administrator.

The lawsuit follows two charges investigated by the MCAD in August and November 2023, alleging violations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state law.

Lizana said the state agency didn’t complete its investigation, but gave the go-ahead for the lawsuit to be filed.

Regarding next steps, Lizana said he will be conducting discovery of the public schools’ business records, deposing several senior public school officials and preparing for a trial.