June 16, 2019

Presque Isle teacher placed on leave

PRESQUE ISLE – A local social studies teacher who filed a federal lawsuit against his school district claiming that his First Amendment right of free expression was violated has been placed on administrative leave with pay.

Attorneys for both sides, however, are saying the move is not related to the lawsuit.

Gary Cole, a seventh-grade teacher at Skyway Middle School in Presque Isle, has not worked at the school since the beginning of March, according to his attorney, Michael Carpenter of Houlton. Carpenter is representing Cole on the administrative action, as the teacher seeks to be taken off academic leave.

Cole filed a civil lawsuit against SAD 1 in November, alleging that complaints by a “small group of fundamentalist Christian individuals” led to changes in the district’s social studies curriculum, which required him to teach only about Christian cultures and avoid references to other religions and cultures.

Members of Cole’s department have objected to the complaint, calling it ludicrous.

The decision to put Cole on leave was made by SAD 1 officials but was not disciplinary, according to Bruce Smith, a Portland attorney who represents the district.

Smith declined Friday to comment on why Cole was put on administrative leave, citing personnel confidentiality laws.

Carpenter confirmed Tuesday that his client is on administrative leave, but that it is not connected to Cole’s lawsuit.

“There are separate issues,” Carpenter said. “We are contesting the issues that resulted in [Cole’s] leave.”

Cole denies the reasoning the district used to put him on administrative leave, his attorney said.

Carpenter declined to comment on why the leave was executed, saying discussions with SAD 1’s attorney are pending.

Cole’s civil lawsuit centers on the rewriting of the SAD 1 social studies curriculum, which took place in 1997. The changes were made by the district’s curriculum committee, with participation of all faculty members, to align the curriculum with the Maine Learning Results, according to school officials.

Cole, who taught ancient world history before the change, was aware of what he was expected to teach in the new curriculum, but asked for permission to expand it to include non-Christian cultures, according to his attorney, A.J. Greif of Bangor.

That permission was denied and Cole was prohibited from teaching his old curriculum after the change, Greif said in December.

Efforts to reach Greif for comment have been unsuccessful.

Cole is seeking compensatory and punitive damages in the case, as well as a ruling that will allow him to teach about the history and religious influences of the entire Eastern Hemisphere.

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