BANGOR – A former Brewer softball coach Friday filed the first lawsuit in the state alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Kelly Jo Cookson, 44, of Clifton sued the Brewer School Department and Superintendent Daniel Lee in Penobscot County Superior Court.
She alleged in the complaint that after coaching softball in the district for 14 years she was not rehired because she is a lesbian. Cookson also alleged that Lee slandered her when he told two parents that he “knew things about Kelly that I can’t share publicly.”
“I think this is the last prejudice that a substantial minority of people in Maine [face] and the fact that it took so long to make this illegal shows us how deep rooted that prejudice is,” Cookson’s attorney, A.J. Greif of Bangor, said Friday.
The superintendent denied the allegations. Lee said Friday that an incident in April 2005 when Cookson had allowed student athletes to walk barefoot through sheep manure contributed to the decision to not rehire her.
“The allegation that [the] decision was in any way discriminatory is simply false,” the superintendent said in a prepared statement. “The school department is confident that it will prevail in any legal action taken against it.”
Cookson’s is the first lawsuit filed under the law that added sexual orientation to the list of classes protected from discrimination under the Maine Human Rights Act. The provision, which was first introduced in the Legislature in 1976 and was repealed once by voters before being upheld in a referendum last year, took effect on Dec. 28, 2005.
The law prohibits discrimination in areas of employment, housing, credit and education. The act already prohibited discrimination based on age, race, religion, disability and other factors.
In her lawsuit, Cookson is seeking reinstatement, a jury trial, compensatory damages, lost pay and attorneys’ fees. She received a right-to-sue letter last month from the Maine Human Rights Commission because it was not able to investigate her claim within the required time period.
“The Brewer School Department never discriminated against Ms. Cookson in any way,” Lee said in the prepared statement. “Ms. Cookson was not rehired as the Brewer softball coach because the school department had issues with her prior performance and attitude.
“Indeed, these concerns include the fact that a notice of claim [was] filed against the school department by a student alleging that Ms. Cookson had student athletes walk barefoot through sheep manure, an allegation Ms. Cookson does not deny,” Lee continued. “It should have therefore come as no surprise to Ms. Cookson that the school department felt it was time for a change in its softball program.”
Betsy Webb, the former superintendent, reprimanded Cookson for that incident on May 31, 2005, after an investigation. A copy of the letter was attached to the lawsuit filed Friday.
“We cannot condone walking barefoot through a pasture containing manure as a school-sanctioned activity,” Webb wrote. “At best, it needlessly exposed children … to infection or illness. At worst it could be, and in fact was by at least one person, perceived as hazing. This activity was inappropriate for our student athletes and I trust it will not ever be repeated.”
Webb ended the letter on a note that Greif claimed “reflects the school department’s expectation that [Cookson] would return as a softball coach for the 2006 season.”
“Thank you again for your contributions to Brewer softball and for ensuring all future team activities will always be positive, appropriate and safe,” Webb said.
Webb left the Brewer School Department in September 2005 for a job with the Bangor School Department. Lee replaced her.
The following month, Cookson, members of her coaching staff, including her successor, and school administrators were named in a $1 million notice of claim that alleged Cookson verbally abused Stacey Gomm, now a Brewer High School senior, during a team cookout in April 2005. One of the activities that occurred that day was a walk across a pile of dirt and straw that contained sheep feces.
Gomm and her mother, Beth Seaney, and stepfather, Larry Seaney, claim Gomm was verbally abused, physically threatened and forced to walk barefoot through the sheep feces.
Gomm’s attorney, Michael Harman of Millinocket, said Friday that he “continues to have constructive discussions with the school department” concerning his client’s notice of claim. Neither Gomm nor her parents has sued the district.
In her discrimination lawsuit, Cookson claimed that when she met with Lee on Oct. 20, 2005, to discuss the incident, the superintendent did not tell her that he was thinking about not rehiring her for the upcoming season. Cookson claimed that it was not until Jan. 18 during a phone call from Lee that she learned the superintendent would not put her name forward when he nominated spring coaches.
Harry “Skip” Estes was hired to replace Cookson in February. Estes, who in 2005 coached junior varsity softball, is one of four coaches, in addition to Cookson, named in the Gomm notice of claim.
“The timing here is very suspect,” Greif said Friday. “Had Mr. Lee ever discussed with Kelly that her job was in danger in October before she was outed, he would have documented that, but he never did.”
The lawsuit claimed that Cookson was outed by a fellow coach who told others she would not be punished for the sheep manure incident because she was a lesbian.
Cookson is a graduate of Brewer High School and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where she played softball, basketball and field hockey. She was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball at UMPI, where she is a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame.
Hired as the Brewer High softball head coach in 1992, Cookson was the Penobscot Valley Conference Class A Coach of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 2001. Brewer won the Eastern Maine Class A championship in 2004 and has been in three other regional title games during her tenure.
Cookson also has served as an assistant varsity basketball coach at Brewer. She is a former high school softball and American Softball Association umpire. Cookson, who currently does not have a coaching job, has taught physical education at Indian Island School since the early 1990s.