The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination found probable cause that the Lincoln school district and its then-superintendent, Michael Brandmeyer, may have discriminated against an African-American department head when they eliminated her position in 2011, according to a copy of the finding.
Christina Horner alleged that she was targeted for dismissal after she spoke out about incidents involving middle school students, saying that two African-American boys who pulled down each other’s pants were punished more harshly than a Caucasian girl who did the same thing to a male Metco classmate.
“I just thank God that I was able to persevere, that I was able to bring this to light,” Horner, who lost her job as director of Lincoln’s Metco program, said in a recent interview.
“I want a public apology for myself. I want a public apology for those boys,” she said.
The state agency issued its probable cause finding last month, and directed the parties to take part in a conciliation conference scheduled for Sept. 24. If they cannot resolve the dispute, the case could move to a public hearing.
Horner’s lawyer in the case, Robert Catapano-Friedman, declined to say what his client is seeking in terms of possible monetary damages, but said the Wellesley resident would “be amenable” to getting her job back.
The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program buses city students to suburban districts in an effort to provide them with better educational opportunities, and to create more racially diverse student bodies.
Horner worked for the district for nine years, and “her dedication and commitment to the job was never questioned,” according to the commission’s report on its investigation. She filed her initial complaint against the Lincoln school system in February 2011, objecting to the handling of the pantsing incidents and the subsequent targeting of her position. She amended it after her job was eliminated.
Brandmeyer retired from the district last year; his successor as superintendent, Rebecca McFall, declined to comment on the complaint.
“It’s an active case at this time,” she said. “No one in the district at this time would be able to comment on it.”
She said that Brandmeyer’s decision to retire had nothing to do with Horner’s complaint.
Brandmeyer declined to comment when reached by phone. “I don’t think that’s appropriate at the time, given that it’s a pending case and it hasn’t been resolved yet,” he said.
Peter E. Montgomery, the lawyer representing Brandmeyer and the district, also declined to comment.
However, according to the commission’s investigative disposition, the district maintained that Horner’s position was eliminated due to Metco budget cuts and an attendant increase in program costs. Streamlining administrative costs was intended to allow those savings to pay for academic programs for Metco students.
The district also maintained that the two pantsing incidents were treated differently because the first was more severe, with the boys’ underwear being dropped, and not because of racial prejudice, according to the commission.
In September 2009, according to documents Horner filed, she learned that two seventh-grade African-American boys, one a Metco student and one a Lincoln resident, had been given one-day in-school suspensions for pantsing each other as part of a game.
A little more than a month later, according to the documents Horner filed, she learned of a second pantsing incident — this time, in which a sixth-grade Caucasian girl pulled down a sixth-grade African-American boy’s pants during class, sending the distraught boy running out of the classroom. The girl was allegedly given a lunch detention and made to apologize to her class, with the principal saying the penalty was based on her being remorseful and a “good” kid, according to the documents.
“This particular case was so egregious,” Horner said in an interview. “For me, it reeked of issues of race, gender, and class, and now you throw sex into it.”
According to her original complaint, Horner told Superintendent Brandmeyer that she thought the district was “discriminating against black male students by punishing them differently than white female students.” In November 2009, Brandmeyer began an investigation into the handling of the two incidents.
The mother of the sixth-grade boy who was pantsed told the Globe that her son was “devastated” by the incident. At home he cried, she said, and she had to reassure him over and over that nothing was wrong with him. She bought him new boxers because his classmates taunted him about his underwear. In her view, the girl should have received a suspension.
“Had my son pantsed this blonde white girl, would he have been given one lunch detention?” she said in an e-mail. “To this date, no one has answered this question. I believe that I would have heard a howl of outrage 40 miles away in Boston, and my son would have been expelled from the school.”
In April 2010, according to documents filed by Horner, Brandmeyer told her he was considering a new Metco plan for the fall that would eliminate the local director's position. Horner’s lawyer informed Brandmeyer that Horner’s contract ran until 2011, but Brandmeyer continued insisting that her position would be eliminated in 2010, sending an announcement to the local newspaper and discussing it at public meetings.
During a January 2011 public meeting where minority hiring was discussed, according to Horner’s complaint, Brandmeyer said, “We only hire the best and brightest. Unfortunately the people of color whom we have interviewed have not been the best and brightest.”
Horner said in an interview that Brandmeyer’s comment stunned her.
“He was talking about me. Not only me, but people who look like me,” she said. “It was a punch in the stomach. Basically, I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry, but I had to be strong.”
The district maintained that the superintendent’s “best and the brightest” comment meant that he had tried to hire more minority teachers, but that the caliber of applicants had not met the district’s standards for excellence, according to the MCAD report.
In May 2011, the School Committee accepted Brandmeyer’s proposal to eliminate Horner’s full-time position, and replace it with two combined part-time positions, according to the documents. Horner applied for one of the positions, but was not hired.
The MCAD found that Horner “met her burden of proof” to establish a case of discrimination based on race and color.
Regarding Horner’s allegation of retaliation, the state agency’s disposition notes that she filed her original complaint in February 2011, and her position was eliminated just three months later.
“Based on the evidence presented,” the report states, “it is more likely than not that after Complainant filed her complaint, Respondent retaliated against her by deciding not to renew her contract and by not rehiring her.”
Horner said she has been working on and off on short-term contracts. Having filed the complaint, she said, will likely make it difficult for her to find work in education.
Still, she said, she does not regret what she did.
“When you see injustice, you have to stand up,” she said.