By: Michael Givens/TRT Assistant Editor & Nick Collins/TRT Intern—
BEVERLY, Mass.—A Beverly, Mass. teacher is suing a Montessori school he taught at for nearly three years over accusations that the institution terminated his employment because of his pro-LGBTQ opinions and consistent requests to provide a more culturally competent atmosphere for LGBTQ students, according to a legal complaint filed with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
“I think that LGBTQ issues are everyone’s issues, and when you’re in an environment where individual needs are not respected or honored, it affects everyone,” said Cory Grant of the pending lawsuit he filed.
Grant, 34, alleges in a seven-page complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) that during his employment at Harborlight Montessori, between September 2014 and June 2017, he consistently encouraged administrators and staff to be more supportive of LGBTQ students. Initially, Grant said that he was a head teacher in the upper elementary program and taught after-school programs and clubs and, according to his complaint, had no disciplinary issues during his tenure.
In April 2017, however, Grant said that head of school Paul Horovitz brought him into his office and informed him that due to a lack of funding, his employment would end in June.
“Staffing levels are based upon enrollment,” Horovitz said a statement e-mailed to The Rainbow Times. “A decline in numbers in our upper school necessitated the elimination of a teaching position.”
Horovitz added that he could not comment on personnel matters outside of the statement provided to the publication. Harborlight is currently being represented by Jackson Lewis, one of the largest law firms in the nation.
A list of grievances
Montessori schools provide a form of education originally pioneered by Dr. Maria Montessori in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Italy. The basic premise of a Montessori education is that children are provided a structured environment where they learn at their own pace based on their own interests and level of development. Children are often allowed to work through use of materials, as opposed to direct instruction, and classrooms also may be composed of children of different ages and skill levels. Students often have learning plans tailored to their individual needs.
According to Private School Review, there are 75 private Montessori schools in Massachusetts serving more than 6,000 students.
Harborlight Montessori, in Beverly, was originally a pre-school founded in 1973 and currently has 40 faculty and 225 students, according to Horovitz. The school accepts infants all the way up to students in the eighth grade.
“All members of the Harborlight community are valued for their contributions, talents, and opinions,” reads a portion of the website under a section titled “Our Commitment to Diversity,” “The philosophy, curriculum, and administration of our programs aim to create an inclusive learning environment with respect to economic background, gender, gender identity and expression, race, national and ethnic origin, cultural heritage, religion, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, and political beliefs. Harborlight integrates diversity and character education into each learning opportunity to empower students to actively approach each new experience with courtesy and acceptance.”
However, Grant has accused the institution of not living up to its principles.
During his first year, he alleges, a school administrator ignored a parent’s concern about a student being bullied, reportedly due to the child’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
Grant’s complaint further narrates other allegations of administrators’ reticence to embrace LGBTQ students. It outlines instances of being censored by Horovitz, being frowned upon for suggesting a Pride day for students, and also for suggesting that gender neutral restrooms be created for gender nonconforming (GNC) students, among several other incidents.
“You are not allowed to call into question their leadership,” Grant said of the school’s administrators and the consistent clashes he had with Horovitz.
Grant alleges that efforts to wear Pride pins in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016 earned him a reprimand. In one meeting, Grant said Horovitz yelled at him for expressing his frustration that the school was not more supportive of LGBTQ students and said that another administrator made veiled threats about whether he’d keep his job.
“While I was in it, and while I was working on this issue, I didn’t consider how much it was affecting me,” he said of the stress the tension caused. “It’s depressing. It’s depressing to have to work on issues like this.”
“Mr. Grant’s advocacy made a big difference to many people—not just his students, but my family as well,” said Erin Miller, a parent whose child was enrolled in preschool at Harborlight. Miller withdrew her child from the school over concerns similar to Grant’s prior to his termination.
Miller said she first met Grant at a parent teacher association meeting. Miller contends that she quickly realized at the meeting that the administration was not open to celebrating LGBTQ identities. Though Grant never taught her child, Miller said that she found him to be an ally and an advocate for LGBTQ students.
“Mr. Grants’ respectful, but persistent questions in that Parents’ Association meeting caused me to start questioning the administration—and it quickly became clear that this was not a place that had experience or comfort in dealing with LGBTQA issues,” she continued. “This is a pre-K through 8th grade school, and the head of school told me that they couldn’t organize a Pride event because there were young children there and it wouldn’t be appropriate—obviously not thinking through how appropriate such an event would be for my child who has two lesbian moms or for any child or faculty member who themselves was queer or trans or who loved someone queer or trans.”
Horovitz, however, said that the school does in fact provide an inclusive environment.
“As a Montessori school, one of our guiding principles is that education needs to be an available choice to all students, no matter how they learn or who they are,” Horovitz also said in his e-mail statement. “We welcome and promote the diversity of our school. We have always been committed to providing a tolerant, inclusive community and are proud of our efforts and the work of our Inclusivity Committee to sustain a safe and welcoming environment for all of our students, parents, faculty and administration.”
According to the complaint, in 2016, Grant said his title was changed from “head teacher” to “teacher” and his job duties were altered, a move which he claims was retaliatory. Grant said that faculty and staff also started to treat him differently and he often felt he was being targeted for his pro-LGBTQ views.
“These non-verbal expressions included eye rolls, avoidance, failure to include me in discussions, non-responsiveness, using scathing or disdainful tones of voice when speaking to me, and passive aggressive language,” reads a section of the complaint. The complaint also states that someone anonymously left a copy of a New York Times article in his staff mailbox with a column on the need for schools to be tolerant of conservative viewpoints.
“I felt like I was outcast and ignored,” Grant said of the treatment.
“It is very disappointing to see a school that purportedly cares about and celebrates diversity willfully ignore the needs and concerns of the LGBTQA+ members of its community and punish a beloved teacher for advocating on these issues,” said Hillary Schwab, an attorney at Fair Work P.C., which filed the lawsuit with MCAD.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) issues guidelines for public schools to provide support for LGBTQ students through its Safe Schools Program. Harborlight’s classification as a private school means it does not fall under the jurisdiction of DESE and is not required to adhere to any policies established by the office.
A safe learning environment
“The next step is that, over the next month or so, respondents (Harborlight School and Paul Horovitz) are required to file a Position Statement, in which they must substantively respond to the factual allegations in the complaint and the legal theories in the case,” said Schwab. “We then file a Rebuttal Statement in response to the Position Statement, further explaining the relevant facts and the legal theories.”
The Rainbow Times reached out to MCAD about the complaint and was informed by a spokesperson that the complaint has been received, is being reviewed, but that the Commission would not be able to comment further.
“It is my hope that this case will help other teachers advocate for the needs of their students without fear of retribution from their employers,” said Grant of his goal in filing the lawsuit. “Teachers are responsible for providing a safe learning environment for their students. No teacher should ever have to feel hesitant and fearful when supporting and honoring the identity of LGBTQA+ children.”
Miller said that, if successful, the lawsuit will establish a precedent highlighting the importance of LGBTQ students knowing that they have adult allies.
“To me, the most important outcome of the lawsuit is for trans and queer kids to see that there are teachers that will stand up for LGBTQ people,” she said. “When school administrators say that talking to kids about LGBTQ issues is ‘inappropriate,’ they create a profoundly unsafe environment for queer kids and families. If that is what they are saying publicly to a lesbian couple paying a lot of money to send their child to the school, what is being said privately? We all know that queer and trans kids are bullied—it was obvious to me from the conversations I had that the administration either didn’t understand or didn’t care about how to support LGBTQ kids and their families.”
In September, Grant started teaching at Waring School in Beverly, where he works with sixth and seventh graders and teaches science, math, and health. According to Grant, the transition was relatively smooth and the school’s administrators are aware of his lawsuit and the circumstances surrounding his termination from Harborlight.
However, the sting of being fired from his job still lingers.
“All I ever tried to do there was to create an environment that was safe and respectful,” he said. “And there would never be a need to make this issue public if actions had been taken to help support kids that fall within the LGBTQ spectrum when they needed it.”