Former Boston Public Schools teacher’s assistant appears in court for discrimination case

Jacqueline Weaver-Ferguson is suing the district for its response to a physical altercation at a holiday party.

A former teacher's assistant is suing the district for alleged discrimination. –Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff

A Boston Public School teacher’s assistant has sued her former employer, claiming she was disproportionately disciplined after a physical altercation at a school-sanctioned holiday party.

Jacqueline Weaver-Ferguson, 63, a former teacher’s assistant at Lee Academy in Dorchester, said the district’s response was unduly harsh to her as compared to the other teacher’s aid involved because she is black. Attorneys for the school system strenuously denied the charge, saying Weaver-Ferguson’s actions that night and during previous episodes warranted the punishment received.

“I’m very upset and angry because I’m not being treated fairly,” Weaver-Ferguson said after the scheduling hearing.

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Previously, in an attempt to get the case dismissed, school attorneys argued her discrimination claim was vague and “does not reference any actions that were motivated by discriminatory animus.”

Both parties met in court Friday for a scheduling hearing. Weaver-Ferguson is representing herself.

The physical incident in question took place in mid-December 2013, when staff at Lee Academy Pilot School gathered at Sweet Life Restaurant in Dorchester for a holiday party.

In the complaint, Weaver-Ferguson said she was sitting at a table with six other staff members when a co-worker came to the table and said BPS should move her to a certain class, “because you’re tough.” Weaver-Ferguson said she declined by stating “That’s okay, I’m fine where I am at.”

The coworker reportedly came back 20 minutes later and leaned into Weaver-Ferguson’s face. She allegedly told Weaver-Ferguson to “shut the f–k up,” to which Weaver-Ferguson responded, “You’re drunk.”

Weaver-Ferguson said the co-worker then continued using vulgar language, in addition to touching her hair and putting her hands on her, according to the complaint. Weaver-Ferguson said she left the table and was approached by the co-worker again, this time in a threatening manner. When Weaver-Ferguson asked if her co-worker had found a ride home, the co-worker swore again.

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Weaver-Ferguson said she then grabbed the coworker’s clothing and “assaulted her,” according to the complaint. She said she did so “to prevent any harm” to herself and the co-worker.

In an earlier motion to dismiss the case, Boston Public Schools said Weaver-Ferguson failed to mention that the assault involved her grabbing her co-worker by the neck and pushing her against a pillar.

Because of the nature of the incident, the district suspended Weaver-Ferguson without pay for 20 days. The co-worker was not suspended, but was later transferred to another school in the district.

Weaver-Ferguson, who retired last month after an 18-year career in the district, filed a complaint against Boston Public Schools in August 2015 saying she was unfairly discriminated against and punished because she is black. She is suing the district in order to have her suspension removed from her record, as well as for $12,049 in punitive damages for the hardship she endured and loss of pay.

The district denied the discrimination claim, saying Weaver-Ferguson had been subject to three disciplinary hearings in the 15 years she’d been an employee at Boston Public Schools. School officials said the decision to suspend Weaver-Ferguson was “generous.”

“It wasn’t fair,” Weaver-Ferguson said after the hearing. “Someone said we could fire you and we’re giving you a break. The only thing I did was defend myself.”

During the hearing, Judge F. Dennis Saylor asked both parties if they were interested in settling. Natasja D. H. Handy, an attorney for the school system said that they were not interested in mediation without further discovery.

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The district also declined to comment on the case, saying, “Boston Public Schools does not comment on pending legal matters.”

The next status conference is scheduled for October 13. Weaver-Ferguson said she hopes to find a lawyer by then, but has had a hard time finding one she could afford.

“I don’t think I can do this court thing by myself,” she said.

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