Former teacher suing Deerfield Academy

  • Deerfield Academy administration building in Old Deerfield. rECORDER FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/4/2019 11:46:07 PM

DEERFIELD — A former English teacher is suing Deerfield Academy over alleged gender discrimination and retaliation during her 18 years at the prestigious prep school.

Sonja Krusic O’Donnell has filed a federal lawsuit against her former employer, claiming her own reports of sexual harassment were irresponsibly handled and that she was targeted by administration for her support of victims of inappropriate behavior. The lawsuit alleges O’Donnell was told her advocacy violated the academy’s “Code of Conduct” and she was being “aggressive.” O’Donnell also alleges discrimination in salary.

Deerfield opted not to renew O’Donnell’s contract last year. A phone call to Michael O’Donnell for comment was not returned.

According to the lawsuit, O’Donnell was the school’s girls swimming team coach and for years subjected to sexual harassment by the boys swimming coach and an unspecified faculty member who reportedly sent O’Donnell emails that contained inappropriate intimacy and stated his love for her was “not unconditional.” The lawsuit alleges Head of School Margarita Curtis retaliated against O’Donnell by withholding O’Donnell’s contract while the academy investigated the complaint, permitting the confidential complaint to become known around campus, and removing Michael O’Donnell, the complainant’s husband who was also on the school’s faculty, from the Strategic Planning Committee, specifically for his involvement in reporting the faculty member left unspecified in the lawsuit. Since first reporting harassment in the 2006-7 academic year, Sonja O’Donnell was never invited to participate in important committees, was not been given awards and did not received pay raises that reflect her merit and contributions to the academy, her suit alleges.

The lawsuit, submitted by attorneys Emma Quinn-Judge and David A. Russcol of Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP in Boston, claims Deerfield took action about the unspecified faculty member, though the boys swimming coach was kept on until Aug. 30, 2016, when he was abruptly terminated for other misconduct. 

Curtis, Assistant Head of School for Strategy and Planning David Thiel, Communications Director Jessica Day, and Judie O’Donnell, special assistant to the head of school, had no comment for The Recorder, though O’Donnell said she is not related to the plaintiff.

The lawsuit alleges Sonja O’Donnell on several occasions between 2011 and 2016 supported and defended female students, including some who had been subjected to sexual assault, stalking, bullying, or sexual harassment. The academy, however, declined to take appropriate action, according to the suit.

“Instead of supporting these female students, Deerfield has created a culture in which female students and faculty who stand up to sexism face punishment, while male faculty and students who discriminate and create unwelcome or hostile environments for women and girls are not held accountable and are even placed in positions of leadership and/or awarded formal recognitions,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges the dean of faculty in early 2016 “undertook an intrusive and unwarranted investigation” of O’Donnell, canvassing male faculty members for complaints against her. As a result of this investigation, O’Donnell’s pay and responsibilities were reduced and she was required to seek counseling, the suit says.

“Deerfield initially proposed that Ms. O’Donnell see a local social worker whose area of focus includes combat veterans and not educators,” the lawsuit states. “When Ms. O’Donnell instead suggested that she see a female psychologist who is also an educator and specializes in psychodynamic theory with published research and clinical work on vulnerable and oppressed populations, Deerfield then arbitrarily changed the minimum qualifications required for the clinician it wanted Ms. O’Donnell to see.

“After Ms. O’Donnell protested that the counseling requirement was retaliatory and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, Deerfield suspended the counseling requirement but has never rescinded it,” the lawsuit continues.

O’Donnell was also denied a cost-of-living raise in 2017. And, according to the lawsuit, she was paid less than her husband, who had one less year of seniority and experience at the academy.

Deerfield Academy was founded in 1797, and for most of the 20th century was a boy’s prep school. It went coed about 30 years ago.

Reach Domenic Poli at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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