The exterior of Commack High School.

The exterior of Commack High School. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A high school English teacher is suing the Commack school district, saying she has been subjected to "an atmosphere of racial harassment and intimidation" during her 17 years there.

Andrea Bryan, 46, of Bay Shore, said district officials exhibited “deliberate indifference” when she complained about racist harassment from faculty members and students, according to the lawsuit filed Dec. 19 in federal court in Central Islip.

The suit says Bryan is “a black female of Caribbean descent” and was the only black teacher employed by the 6,000-student school system since 2002.

Bryan’s suit said she became a "pariah" in the English department after she complained about another teacher who Bryan says humiliated her by asking her in May 2015 in front of colleagues to translate “slave talk” from a character in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible.” That same teacher, who is white, also told her bags of peanuts left on a table at lunchtime were “for whites only,” the lawsuit says. 

“The district has fostered an atmosphere of racial harassment and intimidation by exhibiting a deliberate indifference to the known harassment of plaintiff,” the lawsuit says. “She has been subject to insult and ridicule.”

District spokeswoman Brenda Lentsch, in an email, said: “The district takes any allegation of discrimination seriously and, as a matter of policy and practice, acts swiftly in response to any claim. Due to privacy requirements, the district cannot discuss the details of Ms. Bryan’s claims. We can say that all of them have been investigated and, to the extent appropriate, promptly addressed.”

The allegation that Bryan was the only black teacher in the district since 2002 is not accurate, Lentsch said, though she did not know the exact number of black faculty members. Bryan continues to teach at Commack High, she said.

Bryan's Hauppauge attorney, Peter Romero, did not comment on the case Wednesday.

The lawsuit seeks punitive and compensatory damages, as well as attorneys' fees. It does not specify any dollar amounts.

The suit said school officials failed to discipline students who called the teacher “Aunt Jemima” during 2016 and 2017.

“The racial jeers, insults and taunts described herein created a hostile work environment in which plaintiff feared for her safety at work,” Bryan’s lawsuit says.

The suit also says she was denied a regular classroom even as white teachers with less experience were given their own dedicated classrooms.

During a Secret Santa exchange in December 2017 with a $50 price limit, the only gift Bryan received was a container of hand sanitizer, the suit says. Other faculty members received gifts worth close to the dollar limit, the court papers say.

“Plaintiff understood that she was presented with hand sanitizer because she is black and, therefore, dirty in the view of her colleagues,” the lawsuit says.

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