Former Portland teacher files federal lawsuit against district, former superintendent

Apr. 27—A former Portland special education teacher has filed a federal lawsuit against the school district and former Superintendent Xavier Botana, saying he was terminated in retaliation for speaking out about classroom staffing shortages.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday by Eric Poulin says Botana and the district violated the First Amendment, the Maine Human Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Maine Whistleblowers Protection Act. The Maine Human Rights Commission reviewed the case and granted Poulin a Right to Sue letter on March 27.

Poulin worked in a Portland K-1 special education classroom at Ocean Avenue Elementary School from November 2020 until Aug. 31, 2022. During his tenure, an employee under his supervision was arrested and charged with sexual exploitation of a minor involving a student in Poulin's classroom.

The district did not renew Poulin's contract. The lawsuit says his contract was not renewed in retaliation for his "oppositional conduct." The district says it was due to general performance.

The lawsuit alleges that Poulin repeatedly reached out to district leadership regarding staff shortages and health and safety risks to students during the 2021-22 school year, both before and after the arrest of employee Benjamin Conroy, but the district did not engage.

Following the arrest, Botana publicly stated that Conroy was not alone with the victim because of staffing shortages. Instead, he said, "we believe that the issue was a lack of explicitly documented expectations around staff being alone with a student."

Poulin said that was inaccurate and at the time spoke publicly, including to a Portland Press Herald reporter, about staffing shortages within the district's program for high-needs students with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders, developmental delays and high behavioral needs that Poulin worked in. Students in the Portland program, Beach, often need one-on-one attention.

At the time, multiple other staff in the program corroborated Poulin's statements about staffing shortages, saying they had been short-staffed without replacements or substitutes and that had led to safety challenges. Some said they had also brought up staffing concerns with district leadership and been ignored.

Conroy pleaded guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced May 15. He could receive anywhere from 15 to 30 years in federal prison for sexually abusing a 6-year-old autistic student in his care.

Before working for the Portland school district, Poulin worked as a special education teacher in both the Windham and Gorham school departments between 2008 and 2020.

Although the lawsuit claims the district's decision to terminate Poulin's contract was in retaliation for continued complaints and public statements about staffing shortages, the Portland school district said that its decision was tied to job performance.

"At Portland Public Schools we consider the decision as to whether to nominate a teacher for a continuing contract to be one of the most critical decisions we make and the standard we use is whether the teacher under consideration is the best person to meet the needs of our students," the district said in a written statement.

"Mr. Poulin did not meet this standard. We cannot choose the easy path of avoiding litigation over the best interests of our students and therefore Mr. Poulin was not given a continuing contract to teach here."

In his lawsuit, however, Poulin said the district had never expressed concern regarding his teaching before he spoke out about the Conroy incident.

On Thursday, Poulin referred questions to his attorney, who wasn't available to discuss the case.

Poulin's lawsuit comes against the backdrop of an educator staff shortage in Portland, Maine and around the nation. The district in September said its staff shortage was so severe that it contemplated going to four-day school weeks for some students. Around the same time, district education technicians said staffing shortages were so grave that student safety was in danger.

Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum will defend both the district and Botana in the lawsuit. Botana resigned earlier this year. The school district's insurer will incur the cost of the defense for both defendants.