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Teacher testifies KC Catholic school came up with reasons to fire her after pregnancy

Teacher fired from Kansas City Catholic school sues diocese

A former teacher at St. Therese Catholic elementary school says she was fired because she was pregnant and unmarried.
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A former teacher at St. Therese Catholic elementary school says she was fired because she was pregnant and unmarried.

A Catholic grade school teacher who says she was fired for being pregnant and unmarried testified Monday she believed the school’s administrators created a paper trail of evidence to terminate her, ostensibly for other reasons.

The teacher, Michelle Bolen, told Jackson County jurors she believed administrators at St. Therese Catholic elementary school closely watched her after she disclosed her pregnancy. The assistant principal documented Bolen’s performance, she testified, so the school could choose not renew her contract and give reasons other than “being pregnant out of wedlock.”

Bolen’s testimony came more than three years after she filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the school’s former principal, claiming she was harassed, targeted and fired because of her pregnancy.

Her attorneys said the former principal, Carol Lenz, had never failed to renew a teacher’s contract after having overseen 330 performance reviews over nearly a decade.

The diocese’s lawyers have said Bolen’s contract was not renewed because of alleged job performance problems that included insubordination, violation of the school code of ethics, tardiness and leaving students unattended.

Joe Hatley, a lawyer representing the diocese, has said the case was not about her pregnancy, and that Bolen was intent on getting “revenge.”

During her testimony, Bolen said she and her fiancé went to the Rev. Joseph Cisetti, the priest at St. Therese Parish where she was a member, to talk about the pregnancy and marriages classes. Cisetti told her she made the right decision to keep the child, but implied that had she terminated her pregnancy, the school would not have to deal with a “scandal,” according to Bolen’s testimony.

Cisetti did not congratulate Bolen on the pregnancy, but instead told her she had violated the terms of her contract, according to her testimony. It was the first time she thought her job was at risk, she said, and it left her feeling betrayed.

In a later meeting, Lenz told Bolen her contract was not guaranteed, according to Bolen’s testimony. It was the first time in her 15 years at St. Therese that a principal had told her such a thing, she said. She felt nauseous and thought, “‘Oh, this could be bad.’”

Contract not renewed

Bolen, a first-grade teacher, was asked to wear loose clothing and not tell anyone at school about the pregnancy, she testified.

But once rumors circulated, Lenz suggested Bolen send an email or stand up during a meeting to tell her colleagues the news. Bolen wondered why anything had to be done, but allowed administrators to draft and send an email.

Bolen was later given what the school called a performance improvement plan, which criticized her for allegedly not dressing appropriately, not arriving to class on time and not meeting enough with her coworkers, among other things, according to testimony.

Bolen said administrators did not speak with her about the accusations before they were outlined in the review.

Other teachers made similar infractions, but those allegations were not put on a performance improvement plan, Bolen testified. Her attorneys have also said her reviews were positive up until she disclosed her pregnancy.

Among the reasons given for Bolen’s termination was an accusation that she had reported another teacher for allegedly touching her older son and another child in a way that made them uncomfortable.

Bolen testified she felt she had a responsibility to report the accusation, saying school policy was to tell administrators about any possible child abuse or neglect.

When Bolen was given the notice that her contract would not be renewed, she began to shake, felt her temperature rise and worried that her stress could affect the pregnancy, she testified. She told jurors she felt as if she were “in the Twilight Zone.”

Bolen had worked at St. Therese at 7207 NW Highway 9 in Kansas City, North, from August 2000 to July 2015. She started out as an assistant director in the school’s Early Childhood Center.

After she lost her job, Bolen borrowed money from her parents in Omaha, Nebraska, to pay her rent, she testified. She thought of leaving the teaching profession and put her children in public school.

“Our whole life was about this community,” Bolen said of St. Therese.

Bolen now works with first graders at another school, she testified.

Attorneys for the diocese have said Bolen’s lawyers twisted the facts of the case to make it appear to be “something nefarious when it was not.”

They have pointed to Bolen’s message to a friend that read, “I will not rest until Carol loses her job.” Bolen testified she wrote the message while overcome with emotion and has never asked the diocese to fire her former boss.

Bolen’s lawsuit is seeking monetary compensation. Testimony is expected to continue Tuesday morning.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.
Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.
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