DOVER, N.H. – Parents, students, alumni, and some teachers are outraged after the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic high school recently opted not to renew the contracts of four teachers, claiming that the school did so because the teachers identify with or support the LGBTQ community.
School President Paul Marquis denied the claims, though he acknowledged that contracts for four teachers were not renewed last week, and that two others had voluntarily resigned. The Globe independently confirmed that a third teacher decided to retire, and a fourth resigned in protest over the weekend.
“While we are not able to share details regarding specific personnel decisions out of respect for privacy and confidentiality, these four non-renewals had absolutely nothing to do with LGBTQ+ identity or personal alignment or views,” Marquis said. He told parents that it is customary for the school to make personnel decisions at this time of year and start recruiting new faculty for the upcoming year.
But current and former teachers say otherwise.
“This idea of there’s nothing to do with religious preference of LGBTQ+ issues and so forth, that’s nonsense and everybody knows it,” said Jeff Thomson, who taught at the school from 2004 to 2015 and served on the school board for six years prior to that.
“As a former faculty member, I’m appalled,” he added.
He spoke highly of Jen Duprat, Kathrine Graham, Dave Couture, and Ed Tinney, whose contracts weren’t renewed. Some had been at the school for more than 20 years and he had reviewed the performance of at least one of them in the classroom.
“These are solid educators,” he said. He said the administration’s actions mark a turn toward greater conservatism at the St. Thomas Aquinas school, which opened in the 1960s.
Willow MacNeil, who graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas in 2022, said she experienced that change firsthand. She was gender questioning in high school, she told the Globe, and by her senior year she identified as a woman.
“The current principal when I first came in that community was much more accepting,” she said. “It didn’t feel as hostile as it did at the end.”
Kevin Collins was the principal when MacNeil started at St. Thomas Aquinas. He told the Globe he sought to find the difficult balance between supporting LGBTQ students while never going against the teachings of the Catholic church.
“The key phrase for us was that St. Thomas Aquinas was a welcoming, nurturing community,” he said.
Willow MacNeil’s mother, Jennifer MacNeil, said that attempt to find balance worked under Collins’ leadership.
“When our daughter originally enrolled in St. Thomas, the principal at the time was very welcoming and caring towards the transgender community,” said Jennifer MacNeil. That’s why she felt comfortable sending her daughter to school there in the first place, she said. “The program we bought in the beginning was not the program my daughter had to graduate through.”
A new administration was put in place at St. Thomas Aquinas in 2020, when James Broom became the chair of the board of trustees. Broom is the president of the Hope for Tomorrow Foundation, which also runs the St. Patrick Academy in Portsmouth. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In 2020, Marquis became the principal of St. Thomas Aquinas. Alumni of the school told the Globe that his arrival marked the shift from a liberal Catholic education toward a more conservative one. Marquis was appointed president of the school in December 2022.
“It was made known under the new administration that if preferred pronouns were used teachers would be fired immediately,” Jennifer MacNeil said. “Our daughter went by her male pronouns, wore the male dress code.”
For a school production of “Legally Blonde” in April, Marquis informed students that one of the numbers would have to be changed to not include the word “gay,” multiple teachers told the Globe. After an English teacher asked students last year if they had preferred pronouns, Marquis sent an email apologizing to parents.
“It is not our policy to ask any student to identify him/herself by gender,” Marquis wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Globe. “I am truly sorry for any discomfort our students may have experienced due to a deviation from this policy.”
“At St. Thomas Aquinas, our Catholic mission does not bend or bow to evolving attitudes, trends, or norms,” he wrote. He added that while the teachers had best intentions at heart, “it was misguided.”
Erin Jacobsen graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas in 1990; her daughter graduated from the school in 2021. The difference now seems stark to her.
“The decisions that they’re making right now aren’t in line with the St. Thomas that I went to, that my daughter went to,” Jacobsen said.
The change in culture isn’t limited to St. Thomas Aquinas school. Jennifer MacNeil said she has now withdrawn her youngest child from Saint Mary Academy in Dover, a middle school also run by the Diocese of Manchester, after the Diocese endorsed a program called the Person and Identity Project.
According to the program’s website, the Person and Identity Project “assists the Catholic Church in promoting the Catholic vision of the human person and responding to the challenges of gender ideology.” It is funded by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington, and presents “gender ideology” as a belief system that is incompatible with Catholicism because it denies the unity of body and soul, “encourages people to manipulate and to alter and modify their body,” “denies sexual difference,” and rejects God “as the author of life.”
David Thibault, superintendent of schools at the Diocese of Manchester, said, “the Person and Identity Project is not a training, but rather a resource on the Catholic vision of the human person.”
Marquis echoed that assertion, saying misinformation has been shared about the program along with “false assertions that we are preparing to implement this program in our school.”
“To be clear, the Person and Identity Project is not a curriculum, and it is not being implemented at our school,” he said, referring to St. Thomas Aquinas school. “The program is one of the resources that the Diocese makes available on the Catholic vision of the human person.”
But multiple teachers at St. Thomas Aquinas told the Globe the Person and Identity Project was presented to them as a program that they would participate in this fall. Given the administration’s new direction, Kathleen Collins retired and Mariah Kirsch resigned. Keith Adams resigned after the other teacher’s contracts were not renewed; Patrick McCafferty resigned a few days later. And one of the teachers whose contract was not renewed told the Globe that they believed they were fired for voicing opposition to the idea behind the program.
“The superintendent of Catholic schools came to our school unannounced, and spoke to us for almost an hour about how the greatest danger, to not only Catholic schools but the country, was transgender ideology,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation by school officials. “All of us (whose contracts were not renewed) voiced our opposition to that understanding.”
The teacher said they were informed on May 10 that their contract would not be renewed, and said Marquis did not give a reason for not renewing their contract. But current and former students note the four teachers have something in common.
“The ones who were fired were the ones who came to me and told me they would use my (preferred) name and that the classrooms were a safe place for me,” Willow MacNeil told the Globe. “It feels horrible.”
The public outcry over the loss of those teachers prompted the school administrators to request a greater police presence at the school, Marquis said, although he acknowledged the school has not received any threats. A spokesperson for the Dover Police Department confirmed the school’s request for law enforcement on and around campus.
Dover police records confirm that Marquis requested law enforcement because “the school is afraid the media will show up and start interviewing students.” The school also revoked students’ ability to go outside for lunch during the school day “because they don’t want them taking (sic) with media,” according to police records obtained by the Globe.
The move brought even more criticism from the community.
“Police presence without a threat posed is intimidation and control,” said Shelagh Braley Starr in a statement. A 1992 graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas, she called the school “one of the last safe Catholic spaces” and said she wants to protect it.
“We want to peacefully grieve for the values they are making the school represent, and share our support with those victimized by this shift in ideology,” she told the Globe. “Loyal, intelligent, caring people have lost their livelihoods, and this gender identity teacher training further alienates kids that are stuck in there now.”
Current students are pushing back against the administration as well. The class of 2024′s student advisory board issued an statement on Instagram: “We have been devastated to hear the news regarding our teachers, and we feel it is unjust and unfair… Though we are still processing and developing a plan of action, we wanted to reach out to tell you that we will not let this go.”
Students also put up fliers around the school that read “From the Class of 2023: For our teachers affected by recent events, We LOVE you for who you are / We thank you so much for your commitment to us.”
The fliers were taken down, a student and a teacher told the Globe. The school administration then called a meeting with student leaders and two representatives from the diocese.
Marquis said the meeting was called “as a result of the persistent rumor and speculation that has been circulating online about staffing and these topics.”
“We met with student leaders of the junior and senior classes earlier this week to give them an opportunity to share their concerns and feelings, ask questions, and offer our support to them and their peers,” he said.
But according to a parent whose child was in the meeting, the students were told to squash the “rumors” about teachers being released for supporting the LGBTQ community. The parent, who asked not to be named publicly out of fear of retaliation by the school, also said the students were accused of hurting the community by spreading rumors on social media. The student’s account of the meeting has been corroborated by other teachers who spoke with the Globe and in correspondence reviewed by the Globe.
“I thought that the attempt to control messaging through the students was inappropriate,” said Justin Pike, who graduated from the school in 1999 and has been active in organizing alumni to call on the school to reverse its staffing decision.
“This is not the school that I was brought up around,” Pike said. “This to me is a purge of any ideology that the school suddenly feels uncomfortable with.”
“It’s such a loss to see good teachers that have been there for 20 years who have given their life to that school and are so loved by community and alumni to be let go just because in their personal life they may be gay or in their personal life they may have a family member whose transgender,” said Michelle Dulac, who describes herself as a “very conservative Catholic.” Her son attended St. Thomas Aquinas for one year before switching to the public Dover High School.
“This administration is making this something that it isn’t,” she added. “I just would hate to see this lumped into all of this other woke agenda crap.”
This article has been updated with information from Dover, N.H., police records.
Amanda Gokee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amanda_gokee.