A Navajo language teacher is alleging racial discrimination after she was fired from Blanding Elementary School, which she says misused federal funds designated for American Indian heritage instruction.
The school’s principal also asked teacher Maryleen Tahy whether she was trying to “become a white man” because of a medical condition that causes pale marks on her skin, according to a lawsuit Tahy filed this week in federal court. San Juan School District officials did not immediately return a call for comment.
Tahy was the only American Indian employee at Blanding Elementary when she was hired in 2013, the lawsuit states, though Native students make up more than 35 percent of the school’s enrollment. Tahy taught Navajo language and culture to more than 150 students a day and was tasked with planning musical performances and the school’s annual Native American Heritage Week.
According to the lawsuit, Tahy’s salary and class expenses were paid for with federal aid through the Johnson-O’Malley Act, under which funds are allocated to services for American Indian students and education in American Indian language and culture.
But the principal at the time, Mark Burge, began ordering Tahy to spend her prep time tutoring the general student body in reading, the lawsuit states. An administrator told Burge that Tahy had to spend her prep time working on the classes that the school's federal aid was paying for, the lawsuit alleges, but Burge then accused Tahy "of not being a team player."
Burge, who now is a principal at a Provo elementary school, declined to comment and referred questions to the school district.
In fall 2015, the lawsuit states, Burge eliminated Tahy’s budget for Native American Heritage Week and used the money to buy classroom supplies for the school even though it was federal aid designated for American Indian cultural events, according to the lawsuit.
That withdrawal of funds followed a series of encounters that the lawsuit describes as discriminatory.
In Tahy's first year at the school, Burge took over Native American Heritage Week and "arranged for white presenters to give presentations instead of hiring the Native American presenters selected by Ms. Tahy," the lawsuit states.
Tahy was not allowed to remove American Indian students from their regular classes to rehearse for concerts, even though the general music teacher, who was white, was allowed to take students out of class for rehearsals, according to the lawsuit.
Tahy's lawsuit claims she complained to district administrators early in 2015 that Burge was discriminating against her and undermining the school's Navajo heritage instruction, but the complaint "went ignored." A few months later, Tahy alleges, Burge commented on her skin, which has spots of pigment loss due to the skin condition vitiligo.
"What are you trying to do, become a white man?" Burge said, according to the lawsuit.
Tahy was fired in spring 2017, after four annual reviews in which Burge rated Tahy as "emerging" or "minimally effective." But Tahy says she never received feedback identifying "specific, measurable, and actionable deficiencies," as was required by Utah law at the time.
She also wasn't given resources or a plan for improvement, the lawsuit states. Although she was hired as a "provisional" teacher, she wasn't given a mentor, she was kept on provisional status a year longer than state code allowed without a status review or explanation, and before she was fired she was observed by the principal more frequently than the white provisional teachers were, the lawsuit states.
Meanwhile, Tahy received strong reviews from teachers, students and from an independent monitoring team for language instructors, according to the lawsuit.
The suit seeks damages for lost wages, distress, and attorneys’ fees, as well as punitive damages.