Former English teacher Sonja O’Donnell has filed a pending federal lawsuit against Deerfield Academy, alleging years of gender discrimination and retaliation for her advocacy on behalf of female students.
The lawsuit contends that Ms. O’Donnell was unfairly sanctioned by Deerfield administrators for reporting sexual harassment by another faculty member, for standing up to her male colleagues, and for supporting female students, some of whom alleged they were sexually assaulted by fellow students.
“Deerfield has created a culture in which female students and faculty who stand up to sexism face punishment,” the lawsuit states. “Male faculty and students who discriminate and create unwelcome or hostile environments for women and girls are not held accountable.”
Deerfield has filed a response in court denying the allegations and has stated that Ms. O’Donnell was disciplined for multiple incidents of unprofessional conduct.
“The irony of ironies is that this case comes when a woman is leading Deerfield,” Head of School Margarita Curtis said, when asked about the lawsuit. “Ms. O’Donnell was held to the same standards as all other faculty members.”
Ms. O’Donnell taught English at Deerfield for 17 years, advising several student-run groups including the Feminism Club, and coaching the girls varsity swim team from 2000 to 2013. Deerfield did not renew her teaching contract for the 2018-2019 school year.
Her husband, Michael O’Donnell, who taught philosophy, resigned abruptly last August.
In a telephone interview, Mr. O’Donnell declined to comment on why he left Deerfield. The couple also declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The lawsuit describes a series of incidents during Ms. O’Donnell’s tenure which she says represent a longstanding pattern of gender discrimination and demonstrate a “hostile working environment.”
It states that Ms. O’Donnell was sexually harassed by a faculty member from 2003 to 2007. The faculty member, whose name was redacted and no longer works at Deerfield, allegedly sent emails to Ms. O’Donnell expressing love to her that was “not unconditional.”
After Ms. O’Donnell and her husband reported the mistreatment during the 2006-2007 academic year, the lawsuit contends, Deerfield retaliated against the couple by removing Mr. O’Donnell from the Strategic Planning Committee and allowing the mistreatment to become known around campus.
Deerfield has denied these allegations, stating that the faculty member’s employment was terminated in response to the complaint.
In another heavily redacted section, the lawsuit describes several alleged incidents in which Ms. O’Donnell defended female students who reported being sexually assaulted on campus. In these cases, according to the lawsuit, Deerfield was “dismissive” of the complaints and the alleged perpetrators faced no disciplinary consequences.
According to Assistant Head of School for Student Life Amie Creagh, reports of sexual assault typically lead to an investigation and an adults-only Disciplinary Committee hearing. The threshold for disciplinary action as a result of the hearing is “clear and convincing evidence” that a major school rule has been broken.
By state law, all incidents of sexual misconduct or assault are also reported to the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families.
In many of the cases that are reported, Ms. Creagh acknowledges, there are often conflicting stories, with one word against another.
“It’s rare to have a third party witness who can share what they saw,” she said. “It is maybe the most difficult thing that our office has to grapple with.”
Ms. Creagh said that students had been suspended in the past for incidents involving sexual misconduct or assault, but declined to say whether any had been expelled. She also declined to comment on the lawsuit or specific cases, citing privacy concerns.
In October 2012, Ms. O’Donnell was required to see a mental health counselor.
The lawsuit alleges that this requirement was unlawful and “unjustified by any legitimate concern about Ms. O’Donnell’s ability to perform her job effectively and safely.”
Deerfield has stated the requirement was imposed in response to Ms. O’Donnell’s inappropriate behavior with students. According to Deerfield, a student complained in the spring of 2012 about Ms. O’Donnell’s use of expletives and conduct. Deerfield also stated Ms. O’Donnell was told she had “aggressively attacked” faculty when serving as an advisor or advocate in two Academic Honor Committee hearings, providing “staunch advocacy” for students but failing to support the mission of the school.
“We asked you to undertake counseling … to help you deepen your understanding of what triggered these incidents and develop preventive strategies,” Dean of Faculty John Taylor wrote in a letter to Ms. O’Donnell in 2012. According to Deerfield, Ms. O’Donnell agreed to attend the counseling sessions but met with a counselor only once.
Four years later, the lawsuit contends, after Ms. O’Donnell advocated strongly for a female student during a 2016 DC hearing, she was investigated for all of her conduct during her entire tenure at Deerfield.
On Apr. 11, 2016, she was found to have violated Deerfield’s employee Code of Conduct due to her behavior during disciplinary hearings and criticism of her colleagues, according to a letter written at the time from Mr. Taylor.
Ms. O’Donnell was required to attend at least ten counseling sessions, a requirement she says she protested and Deerfield claims was later rescinded.
She was removed from her duties as an advisor to students and banned from serving as an advocate in disciplinary hearings. Her pay was reduced by 5%, and she was denied a cost-of-living raise for the subsequent year.
Following these sanctions, Ms. O’Donnell filed a charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which she alleges led to further retaliation from Deerfield. She says she was subjected to repeated internal investigations, and that Mr. O’Donnell was also investigated as a further form of retaliation.
The lawsuit states that after multiple Deerfield administrators built a case for her termination, she was informed her contract would not be renewed for the following year due to her contact with students violating the sanctions Deerfield imposed on her in 2016.
After Ms. O’Donnell learned her contract would not be renewed, she alleges, she had to “direct students not to speak to her or seek her advice” and was informed by an administrator if a female student were to report a sexual assault to her, she could be immediately fired.
More generally, the lawsuit also alleges that Ms. O’Donnell was paid less than other male staff of similar seniority. It cites as an example that Ms. O’Donnell’s pay was less than her husband’s.
Deerfield has denied these allegations, saying Deerfield faculty are compensated on the basis of their merit, years of experience, and, on occasion, professional qualifications and degrees.
“Gender is not the determining factor in assigning salaries,” Dr. Curtis said. “We have demonstrated even and fair treatment in terms of how we support all our faculty.”
The lawsuit, initially filed in October 2017, has been sealed— meaning the thirty-page complaint has been redacted and any supporting documents included in the court file are unavailable to the public. Deerfield requested that the file be sealed, saying it was “replete with allegations that are immaterial, impertinent, prejudicial and scandalous.”
The last time Deerfield faced a civil suit was in 2015, when an alumnus alleged sexual abuse by former teachers Peter Hindle and Bryce Lambert. The case was eventually settled for $500,000.
Ms. O’Donnell’s case is scheduled to go to trial in early 2019.