On Tuesday, Jan. 23, Christopher Dolce, a math teacher since 2001 at Connetquot High School, after receiving a “right to sue” issuance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court of the State of New York against the Connetquot School District through Smithtown attorney, Andrew Lieb of Lieb at Law, P.C., with 16 claims of hostile environment discrimination, circulating discriminatory statements, retaliation, aiding and abetting discrimination, discrimination, publishing discriminatory notes, sex-based harassment in education, retaliation for opposing harassment in education, first amendment free speech viewpoint discrimination, among other violations over the defendants’ implementation of a policy to remove both the Progressive Pride flag and Pride flags on school property.
Lieb has other clients, namely fellow teachers, who are also planning on suing the school district once they receive their clearance from the EEOC. Notices of claim were sent as soon as the first incident took place when fellow math teacher, Sarah Ecke, who is the student advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance, was asked to take down a Progressive Pride flag in September of 2022 and told that if she did not, she would also have to take town the Pride flag.
“Historically, not just in this district, but in most schools, teachers have the latitude to decorate their walls and their doors to personalize,” said Lieb.
The precedent for this is a “limited public forum,” where teachers have been allowed by government to practice personalization.
“As the advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance and in the classroom where the club held meetings, when Sarah Ecke was asked to take down the Progressive Pride flag, and ultimately the Pride flag, it would have been like asking the French teacher to take down the French flag,” said Lieb.
“This case is about viewpoint discrimination from the school district,” said Lieb. “The school district is selective of what can’t be said.”
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges the school district and school board members were discriminatory in enforcing a policy of only U.S. or New York State flags by only limiting the display of LGBTQIA+ flags.
Lieb said that not only were Pride flags banned, but Pride and safe-space stickers displayed by students were also subject to the policy that he characterized as a “quasi ‘don’t say gay’” policy.
The defendants specifically named in the lawsuit are the Connetquot Central School District, Connetquot Board of Education, former superintendent Lynda G. Adams, assistant superintendent Reza Kolahifar, board member Jaclyn Napolitano-Furno, former board member Lee Kennedy, and principal Michael Moran.
Following the initial incident with Ecke in September 2022, hundreds of protestors came to a school board meeting to voice their support of LGBTQIA+ displays in the classroom.
The lawsuit details Kohaifar’s subsequent email sent in October 2022, where the district stated they had a policy against “active political practices,” including “flags denoting political views.” This email set forth the official policy that “the only flags that should be hung in a classroom or office are the American flag and the NYS flag.”
Former superintendent Adams then sent an email that cited an unspecified teacher and classroom as the source of the ostensibly new flag policy because of “continued refusal” of this teacher to remove the Progressive Pride flag and stated that the teacher was offered to keep the traditional Pride flag.
Court documents refute the claim in Adams’s email as it is alleged that Ecke was given a “Hobson’s Choice,” wherein following an unannounced inspection of her classroom by board of education members, she was told that if she did not remove the Progressive Pride flag, she would also have to take down the traditional Pride flag.
On Oct. 15, Dolce, who is an openly gay man, found Pride flag stickers on his door replaced with stickers depicting the American flag and reported the incident to principal Michael Moran, who after suspending the student deemed responsible for targeting Dolce and other staff who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community, circulated an email that said flag stickers were prohibited and mandated they be removed from all doors and windows in classrooms and offices.
In the history detailed in Section 80 of the lawsuit, defendants are said to have “strictly enforced their Removal Policies with respect to LGBTQ+ related symbols,” but did not similarly restrict other categories of speech, including the high school parking lot that displayed a Blue Lives Matters flag, a Mexican flag, a 1776 American flag, and a neo-Nazi/neo-Confederate flag.
The lawsuit alleges that these painted depictions of various flags were not only permitted, but “even encouraged.”
The Suffolk County Police Department was contacted to investigate graffiti on school property of anti-LGBTQIA+ expletives in February and March of 2023.
Defendants were said to “fail” and “refuse” to take remedial action against the perpetrators of the anti-LGBTQIA+ graffiti.