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NYCLU Demands Sag Harbor School District Cease Retaliation Against Health Teacher

The New York Civil Liberties Union is charging Sag Harbor school officials with violating the rights of 11-year veteran health teacher Susan Denis. The NYCLU has charged Sag Harbor School District with overreacting to unfounded accusations of impropriety in ways that violated Denis’ rights.

Last December, after the District failed to provide the legally mandated HIV/AIDS education for the sixth grade (2003-2004), Denis attempted to compensate by teaching her two sixth grade classes an HIV/AIDS lesson. She brought in an HIV/AIDS educator from the Suffolk County Department of Health and presented an age-appropriate lesson about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention. These classes were very similar in content to lessons provided to sixth graders in previous years.

After several parents complained, the school district removed Denis from the classes, instead of reminding parents that HIV/AIDS education is state-mandated for sixth graders. The school officials imposed special restrictions on Denis’ teaching and prohibited her from speaking to her students, their parents or the press about the issue.

“She was doing her job, and doing it as the State requires,” said Jared Feuer, Executive Director of the NYCLU Suffolk County Chapter. “If not for Susan Denis, the District would have been in violation of State law for failing to educate its sixth grade students about HIV/AIDS, and also depriving these students of important health information they need to have. Fortunately, Denis recognized this and taught the students how to stay healthy.”

The NYCLU specifically charges the superintendent of the Sag Harbor Union Free School District and the principal of Sag Harbor’s Pierson Middle/High School with violating Denis’ rights. “The District prohibited Denis from speaking to the press about the incident, crippling her ability to present her side of the story to the community;” said Rebekah Diller, Director of the NYCLU’s Reproductive Rights Project. “They retaliated against her for speech that is protected under the First Amendment; and they did all of this without procedural protections.”

In a letter to the officials, the NYCLU demands that the school district lift the teaching restrictions imposed on Denis, reinstate her two sixth grade classes, acknowledge that she is free to speak to the press about this incident, and make a public apology to correct the misinformation circulating in the community.

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