Sag Harbor health teacher Susan Denis has been vindicated in her dispute with the Sag Harbor School District over her teaching of an HIV/AIDS prevention class in December 2003. The settlement, in response to a complaint from the New York Civil Liberties Union to the School District, re-affirms that Denis did not violate the district’s Code of Conduct in teaching the class. The settlement also affirms that Denis may now speak with parents and the press to explain what happened.

On December 9, 2003, Denis presented to her two sixth grade classes at the Sag Harbor Pierson Middle/High School an age-appropriate lesson about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention. Denis did so after the District failed to provide the New York State-mandated lesson. She brought in an HIV/AIDS educator from the Suffolk County Department of Health and they presented the class with content similar to lessons provided to sixth graders in previous years. After some parents complained, the school district removed Denis from the classes, imposed special restrictions on her teaching, and prohibited her from talking to parents or the press. The District’s March 3, 2005 settlement letter reverses its prior position and removes all restraints on Denis from talking to parents or to the news media.

“This is an affirmation of the First Amendment rights of Susan Denis who was simply doing her job in providing legally mandated HIV/AIDS education to her students. It is also a victory for students who need accurate, age-appropriate information about HIV/AIDS in order to protect their health,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU.

In August 2004, the NYCLU wrote a letter to the School District detailing how Denis’ First Amendment and Due Process rights had been violated and encouraging support of Denis’ efforts to correct the District’s failure to comply with state requirements mandating HIV/AIDS education in the sixth grade.

The settlement specifically states that Susan Denis:

  • Did not violate the Sag Harbor School District Code of Conduct in connection with the lesson she taught on December 9, 2003;
  • Is no longer restricted from speaking to students, their parents or the press about the matter; and
  • Is not currently required to submit lesson plans more frequently than any other teacher.

Said Susan Denis, “I am satisfied with the settlement. I only wish this could have been resolved in a day instead of 14 months. I felt like I was living in the Twilight Zone. The unjustified imposition of restrictions caused rumors to reach critical mass, a situation which would cause any caring person extreme pain and stress.”

Said Anna Schissel, staff attorney with the NYCLU Reproductive Rights Project: “While this is the first step in restoring Susan Denis’ reputation as a valued, veteran health educator, there is still much work to be done in the Sag Harbor School District to ensure that teachers are supported in providing students the essential health lessons they so desperately need. For example, we continue to urge the District to adopt the recommendations of a District-appointed advisory committee to incorporate into its curriculum HIV lessons identical to those provided by Denis.”

In preventing Denis from speaking publicly or to parents about the incident, the District crippled her ability to explain to the community that the lessons were age-appropriate, similar to what other sixth graders have been taught, and required under New York State law. This settlement should lead to a dialogue between parents and Denis about what is appropriate and necessary to teach their children on HIV/AIDS awareness.

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