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He was the only Black male teacher at a Boston public high school and he had to share an office with the school police.
Charles Sherman Neal was at Boston Community Leadership Academy to start a gym program, an effort that began about a decade ago and earned him strong job reviews. But after he repeatedly raised concerns about being discriminated against — including in complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination — school district leaders fired him.
Now, after more than five years of legal fighting, a Suffolk Superior Court jury this week found that the headmaster and other school officials retaliated against him for exercising his legal right to raise concerns about workplace discrimination without fear of retribution, and awarded him $1.7 million. The jury, however, didn’t agree BPS discriminated against him.
“What the Boston Public Schools did to him is despicable,” said the teacher’s attorney, Ilir Kavaja. “This is a man who had cancer and overcame it and went to work right away and he was put through the wringer. ... They had no basis to believe that this person couldn’t fulfill the obligations of his job. They just got tired of his complaints and didn’t want to deal with him.”
He said Neal was emotionally shattered by the termination, causing him to experience both depression and anxiety so severe at times he couldn’t leave his home or even focus on watching television. That swayed the jury, he said, noting that $436,500 of its award was specifically for the injuries he incurred. The remainder of the award broke down this way: $950,000 in punitive damages, and the rest for interest that accrued from when the case was initially filed.
The size of the jury award, coming at a time of racial reckoning across the country, is very significant and could signal heightened awareness about the fear of retaliation people of color often face in the workplace if they raise concerns about discrimination, said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston. He added that jury awards in workplace sexual harassment cases experienced an increase after the Me Too movement raised visibility of the problem and the need for gender equity.
Espinoza-Madrigal said it is not unusual for juries to rule in favor of retaliation in a case but dismiss the claims of discrimination, noting that each have different legal standards and that proving discrimination can be more nuanced and complex.
“Jury awards don’t exist in a vacuum,” he said. “Juries are paying attention to developments, such as Black Lives Matter, and what institutions are doing to get ahead of the curb on diversity, inclusion, and equity.”
“The jury is sending a strong message that retaliation is unacceptable” and wants “to punish the bad actors,” he said.
The jury award could have an impact on employment discrimination across the region, he said, compelling institutions, including small suburban districts, to address racial discrimination in their workplace to ensure all employees feel safe, especially when raising concerns about discrimination.
A Boston schools spokesperson declined to comment, noting officials are reviewing the decision with legal counsel.
Neal’s complaints about racial discrimination at Boston Community Leadership Academy, located in Hyde Park, date back to around 2008 when he first began working there part time. He repeatedly raised concerns that the school’s hiring practices were racially discriminatory, and in 2012 the school finally gave him a permanent teaching position, according to court documents.
He also believed he was experiencing discrimination in other ways. For instance, one day he happened to notice the school installed surveillance cameras in the gymnasium where he teaches his classes, yet yet no white teachers at the school had cameras in their classrooms, according to court documents. The school also put in the cameras without telling him first, which violated a district policy that requires prior notification to teachers.
The school also dispatched another adult to monitor the girls’ locker room when he taught, a step the school didn’t take when a white man was substituting for him. And in early 2014, it took the school two months to reactivate his swipe card to enter the building, which meant he had to get buzzed in.
In fall 2014, the school placed Neal on administrative leave to investigate allegations he engaged in misconduct, even though three days earlier the assistant headmaster praised him in a job evaluation for creating a safe learning environment. Neal, who had become distressed at times over the concerns he was being discriminated against, eventually was fired by former superintendent Tommy Chang in 2016, who cited as a reason in a termination letter alleged “incapacity,” according to court documents.
The case went to arbitration. Neal got his job back, but BPS fired him again.
“I think they mishandled the whole thing from the beginning to the end,” said Kavaja, Neal’s lawyer, adding that the school system often didn’t follow its own policies and procedures. “As a kid in Cambridge, his teachers protected him when he was discriminated against and he wanted to do the same for his students.”
Sharon Hinton, founder of Black Teachers Matter, said educators of color are often in turmoil about whether they should speak out about the discrimination they experience or the racism they see in curricula, such as the teaching of slavery from a white Colonial perspective, because they fear retaliation. She said there were times when she taught at a secondary school in Boston that white teachers felt threatened because Black and Latino students would gravitate to her.
“I didn’t want to be involved in diversity workshops because I was concerned I would say something that administrators would not agree with,” she said. “I was making choices not to be confrontational and not to be seen as an angry Black woman. It was about maintaining employment and keeping a job I love.”
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.