The defendants in a lawsuit brought by a former Williamson County Schools teacher, alleging bullying, harassment and forced resignation, filed a response in Williamson County Circuit Civil Court.
Melanie Lemon, who resigned after seven years teaching third grade at Walnut Grove Elementary at the end of May, filed the suit in June against Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney, Walnut Grove Principal Kate Donnelly and Assistant Superintendent Denise Goodwin, along with the district itself.
“Melanie Lemon was bullied, stalked, intimidated and defamed into a forced resignation,” Lemon’s lawsuit states. “Her livelihood, career and passion were stripped away from her in a painful, humiliating and illegal manner.”
The defendants’ response denies that “they have committed any wrongs,” to Lemon and specifically deny her allegations that they “bullied, stalked, intimidated or defamed” her.
The brief says that Lemons’ “comparison of appropriate supervision in the employment context to bullying of students is an affront to those students who have been subject to bullying, and minimized this very serious issue that [WCS] strives to confront.”
Lemon, the defendants write in their response, was in “no way ‘forced’ to resign.” She “voluntarily chose to resign her position while represented by legal counsel provided to her through the Tennessee Education Association,” the teacher’s version of a union in Tennessee.
Their responding brief also says that “holding teachers and other employees accountable to meet an appropriate standard of performance does not constitute” a legal reason to file a lawsuit. Rather, “it is the responsibility of principals and administrators in a school system.”
Lemon alleged that over the course of the 2016-17 school year, Walnut Grove Principal Kate Donnelly picked on her, bullied her and intimidated her, to the point that she felt she had no choice other than resignation. She resigned was effective the end of the 2016-17 school year.
Lemon alleged that because of the bullying, her resignation was a wrongful termination. It also alleges that, given the way the defendants acted and treated her after an alleged incident with a student, her contract was breached. WCS says that a voluntary resignation cannot be a wrongful termination. Lemon’s brief goes roughly chronologically through the last school year, outlining events and incidents she claims support her allegations. The WCS response follows the same structure, responding to or denying the claims one-by-one.
Starting at an Open House
Lemon in her brief said that the bullying began with an interaction between her and Donnelly in dealing with a distressed parent at an open house the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. Lemon said that Donnelly told her she was the reason for the parent being distressed, and made “unnecessary and harassing statements.”
The response denies Donnelly said that. She “did ask what caused the parent to be upset” but did not “assert that Ms. Lemon was responsible.” Donnelly “merely asked whether other parents were present when the parent had become upset.”
Another allegation, which happened in the fall of 2016, by Lemon concerned a fundraiser she organized that involved selling t-shirts. Lemon claimed to be singled out for accessing the t-shirt sizes of students to know how many of what size to order. Lemon also alleges that the fundraiser, which should not have been a problem if it occurred off school property, caused her to be singled out by Donnelly and reprimanded verbally.
WCS and the defendant’s response says that Donnelly gave permission for staff to wear the t-shirt, that she would not have denied permission to do the fundraiser as long as it followed board policy. The response states that “Donelly understood that any fundraiser would have to be done outside of school. Based upon [Lemon’s] conduct, it is not entirely clear that [she] understood this.”
The initial complaint by Lemon submitted into evidence her TEAM General Educator Observation Forms, which rate teachers on an ascending scale of proficiency from 1 to 5, with 5 being the best. They are given to teachers in January. There are scores for 10 teaching criteria.
For 2016, Lemon received mostly 4s and two 3s, out of 10 scores. In 2015, Lemon received three 5s and seven 4s. In her seven years at Williamson County Schools, this was typical for her.
In her 2017 evaluation, “falsely and for the sole purpose of bullying and harassing Ms. Lemon,” Lemon’s suit stated, the district gave her a TEAM score with seven 2s, some 3s, and no 4s or 5s. Lemon had never previously received more than one 2 on an evaluation in her 15-year career as a teacher.
In response, the WCS brief denies “that the purpose of these scores was bullying and harassment. These scores were reflective of [Lemon’s] performance” and “an accurate assessment.”
It contends that the court should award Lemon with “compensatory damages” and “the hope is [the school district] will extend their anti-bullying policy to the adults.”
Among other claims, Lemon argues that the defendants purposely gave her very poor evaluation scores for her performance as a teacher in the past year.
“Directly prior to the decision to bully her into resignation, her excellence is documented,” Lemon’s lawyer Constance Mann stated.
The WCS response brief, however, denies this. Their response is, essentially, Lemon’s “performance over the years varied from average to above-average” and “occasionally slightly below average.”
More Claims, Responses
The brief further alleges that Lemon was accused of child abuse after an incident in March, which we wrote about in June, despite the defendants knowing that “the allegations [were] extremely suspect [given the history of complaints by the parent who made them], the timing and the event described.”
The WCS response states that there is “not any reason to doubt the veracity of the parent’s account” and that there was never any accusation of “child abuse.” The response states that the parent’s complaint created “a duty to investigate and report.”
Lemon also alleges defaming, claiming that Goodwin “publicly and falsely” stated to people that Lemon has “anger issues” and “marital problems.” WCS admits that Goodwin “may have referenced [Lemon’s] ‘anger’ in communications in the course of her position as a supervisor.” However, they deny that she “‘published’ these statements outside of privileged employment-related communications.
Lemon claimed that, when fellow teachers came to Lemon’s defense, they too were bullied. WCS responded that this is not true.
“Her co-workers and other teachers were threatened if they protested in any way,” Lemon alleged in her initial filing. They were told, the complaint alleges, to “remember who signs your paychecks.”
WCS responded by denying that any threat was made, in general, and that, specifically, because Lemon’s brief does not specify who made this statement they can therefore not admit or deny that it was said.
Post- Resignation Announcement
After Lemon turned in her letter of resignation, supporters of hers spoke at the May WCS Board of Education meeting. There, one of her supporters said, Dr. Looney threatened Lemon’s career if her supporters spoke on her behalf.
WCS responds by saying: “Looney indicated [Lemon] resigned and would not be returning to Williamson County Schools and that he expressed concern that [Lemon’s] decision to make a public spectacle of her resignation may negatively impact her ability to obtain employment elsewhere.”