A former special education teacher in York is suing the school department, accusing it of discriminating against her for being gay and then retaliating when she complained to school officials.

Michele Figueira worked at York High School from August 2018 until August 2021, when the York County School Department decided not to renew her contract for the following school year. She filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday, alleging that the school subjected her to a hostile work environment because her supervisor made a series of “degrading and humiliating remarks about her sexuality.”

Figueira also took her complaints in late 2020 to the Maine Human Rights Commission, which issued a decision in November that the school department likely discriminated against Figueira on the basis of sexual orientation. The commission issued her a right-to-sue letter in April.

The school department denied any discrimination or retaliation took place, according to a statement Tuesday afternoon from the district’s attorney, Jeana McCormick.

“The York School Department prohibits discrimination and is committed to providing a supportive and non-discriminatory workplace for all of its employees,” McCormick said in an email.

The department has about a month to file its reply in court.


While defending against the human rights complaint, another attorney for the school department said the administration had done all it could to address the harassment, discipline the supervisor and offer training to other school leaders.

The school said Figueira’s contract was not renewed because she “was unable to work with her colleagues in a collegial manner, which was disruptive to the education of students.”

Figueira did not respond to a request through her attorneys, Laura White and Danielle Quinlan, to discuss the case Tuesday.


Figueira had nearly 20 years of classroom experience in Massachusetts schools when she joined the York County staff.  She received glowing evaluations from her principal and supervisor, the complaint said.

But that same supervisor, Joelle Coleman, repeatedly made inappropriate comments about Figueira’s and others’ sexuality, the complaint states. When Figueira reported Coleman’s conduct to the assistant superintendent, the school department failed to take appropriate action and later retaliated by not renewing her contract, the complaint alleges.


Coleman is not a defendant in the lawsuit and no longer works at the high school. The Press Herald was unable to reach her Tuesday to discuss the allegations.

Figueira said Coleman often asked personal questions about her relationship with her wife, at one point asking if they “have roles in their relationship.” Coleman regularly asked Figueira for her thoughts on other colleagues and their sexuality and would refer LGBTQ+ students to Figueira because of her sexual orientation, the complaint states.

In early 2020, Coleman referred a student to Figueira because the student had two fathers, the complaint alleges. Figueira said Coleman conveyed this to her by raising her hands and waving them about, “to portray a stereotypical ‘flaming’ gay man,” the lawsuit states. Figueira said Coleman also asked if she had any rainbow or pride-themed clothing she could wear to meet the men.

Coleman often harassed Figueira in front of other staff and students, the complaint alleges. On one occasion, Figueira was with students when Coleman bragged about creating a Facebook account under the name “Ewell Godown,” – or “you will go down” –  to bully another woman she didn’t like, according to the suit.

Figueira shared all of this with school officials in March 2020 but the school’s assistant superintendent and Title IX coordinator told Figueira that Coleman’s conduct, while unprofessional, didn’t violate school policies for discrimination.

The department told the Human Rights Commission in January that it had disciplined Coleman and later offered training to make sure that all supervisors were “aware of their obligations with respect to discrimination (and) harassment.”


“After that discipline and training took place, there were no additional comments regarding plaintiff’s sexual orientation, ever made to her by her supervisor or, as far as we know, anyone else,” an attorney for the school, Kathleen Wade, told the commission.


By August 2020, as students and staff returned to in-person classes after going remote for COVID-19, Figueira alleges that Coleman began “undermin(ing) Figueira in front of her colleagues and (singling) her out for additional scrutiny and discipline.”

Coleman gave Figueira a written discipline that October for “calling people out by name in a negative way.”

It was the first disciplinary warning Figueira had received in her career, the complaint states.

The school department launched an investigation into Figueira in March 2021 for refusing to cancel a meeting with a student’s parents, despite a directive from her supervisor. The department said they also were investigating claims that Figueira had misrepresented a conversation she had with a school psychologist, that she called another teacher “disgusting and insulting” and misrepresented her own opinion as a specialist’s recommendation.


Figueira denied these allegations in her complaint. She later requested 12 weeks of time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act because of her “cognitive and behavioral impairments and exacerbation of medical conditions, all due to stress.”

While she was away, the school disabled her email account – an “unprecedented” move, the complaint says, noting other teachers who were away for longer periods maintained email access.

The school district also mailed Figueira a list of questions for its investigation while she was on leave, before telling her they were not renewing her contract.

Figueira also had asked the Human Rights Commission to find that the district had discriminated against her because of a disability, but commissioners voted to reject those claims.

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