A well-liked Williamson County elementary school teacher is suing the school district, alleging she was bullied and harassed into resigning.
Melanie Lemon, who taught second grade at Walnut Grove Elementary, filed a lawsuit Friday in Williamson County Circuit Court. The defendants are Williamson County Schools, superintendent Mike Looney, assistant superintendent Denise Goodwin and Walnut Grove principal Kate Donnelly.
The suit seeks compensatory damages and asks that the school district extend its anti-bullying policy to adults.
Lemon’s resignation on May 12 prompted an outcry in the community. Supportive parents and former students started a petition of protest and quickly collected more than 1,800 signatures. Some showed up at a school board meeting dressed in black to object to how they felt the school district mistreated her.
The lawsuit says that Lemon went from getting stellar observations to suddenly receiving a poor one, and that school officials falsely accused her of child abuse. A teacher for 14 years, seven of them at Walnut Grove, Lemon had tenure. The lawsuit states that Tennessee’s Teacher Tenure Act is supposed “to protect teachers from arbitrary demotions and dismissals.”
At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, Lemon “became the target of a systematic plan to bully her into resignation,” the complaint alleges. She was blamed for upsetting a parent and then ran afoul of school officials while trying to help with a private fundraiser for a co-worker’s child diagnosed with leukemia. Lemon was bullied for trying to obtain t-shirt sizes for students in her co-worker’s class after a parent offered to buy t-shirts for them, the lawsuit says.
In January, she received a poor evaluation “that was an ‘about face’ of each and every evaluation for 14 consecutive years” and was an attempt to force her resignation, the complaint alleges.
In April, she was suspended without pay for three days while under investigation for child abuse. A parent had complained that Lemon pushed their child’s arms down, or grabbed their wrist, and said “stop it” before a play on March 9, according to a school district report cited in an article by Williamson Source. Lemon told school officials she did not remember the incident but said she could have touched the student’s shoulders and that touching students is a normal part of managing elementary school children.
Lemon received a formal reprimand and was reinstated on April 24. Upon her return, cameras were placed in her classroom to stalk and bully her, the lawsuit says. An observer was also placed in her classroom. Colleagues who protested were told “remember who signs your paychecks,” the complaint says.
Lemon resigned a few weeks later “when the stalking, bullying, and harassment could no longer be endured.”
The lawsuit says that “damages are ongoing and cannot be identified until directly prior to trial.” Her annual pay and benefits totaled $67,000. The complaint says she “cannot work in her chosen career.”
JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, told The Tennessee Star that proving coercion in court could be a challenge based on what he has heard about the case. He has no direct knowledge, he added.
“If Ms. Lemon believes she was being targeted for termination, it may have been better from a lawsuit perspective, as harsh as that sounds, if she had been fired, rather than resigned,” Bowman said. “This will be an interesting case. For teachers, the lesson is simple: they need to document everything.”
A school district spokesman contacted Monday had no comment on the lawsuit.