Teacher Daniel Engler says he was trying to keep students in his Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School classroom in their assigned seats on Feb. 8 in order to remember their names. But two of them complained to administrators, reporting that Engler said he wouldn’t be able to tell them apart—allegedly because they are both Black.
Now, the 18-year veteran B-CC teacher has filed suit against Principal Shelton Mooney and the Board of Education alleging he was defamed in a “thoughtless, half-baked” community letter from Mooney that framed the interaction as a hate bias incident and was sent to families two days later.
The lawsuit seeking $75,000 was filed on Aug. 21 in Montgomery County Circuit Court by Potomac-based Wachen law firm attorney David Scott Wachen on Engler’s behalf.
Montgomery County Public Schools spokesperson Chris Cram confirmed that the situation is under litigation but declined to comment further given that “it happens to be a personnel matter.” Cram confirmed that Mooney sent a letter to the school community regarding the incident in February. Mooney did not respond to requests for comment from MoCo360 on Friday.
According to Engler’s complaint, on Feb. 8 he asked two students to sit in their assigned seats because “he is a spatial learner and uses a seating chart—as many teachers do—to learn names,” but the students refused, instead sitting with friends and “causing further disruption” to the class.
After class, the students went to a school administrator and claimed Engler said he wouldn’t be able to tell them apart if they didn’t sit in their assigned seats, “which they believed was because they are Black,” according to Engler’s complaint.
“Engler denies saying what the students alleged or making any type of racial comment,” the complaint says.
Engler’s lawsuit says an internal human resources investigation was launched into the incident, but that before it was complete and without giving him notice, Mooney sent a letter to families characterizing the situation as “a serious incident” involving “unacceptable and harmful behavior” on Engler’s part.
“I am saddened to once again be writing to share information regarding a serious incident that occurred at B-CC and how it was addressed,” Mooney’s letter begins. A swastika was found scrawled on a B-CC student’s desk less than two weeks earlier, according to MCPS.
“Students reported to school administration that a teacher said to several African American students that he was ‘unable to distinguish them from other African American students’ in the classroom,” the letter reads. “This is unacceptable and harmful behavior not in alignment with our school or districtwide values of respect and inclusivity.”
The letter did not explicitly name Engler, but the lawsuit claims he was “readily identifiable” in it, as evidenced by numerous communications he received from families and colleagues following the letter’s publication—including an inquiry from the school’s student newspaper, The Tattler. Engler was relieved of his coaching position with the rowing team shortly after Mooney’s email was sent, according to his complaint.
Mooney’s letter stated that B-CC administrators would be conducting a full investigation into the incident with the support of central office staff and that Montgomery County Police had been notified. Police officials did not immediately respond this week to requests for comment from MoCo360, and Cram declined to comment on any personnel-related investigation conducted by the school district.
“The email we received was essentially a character assassination where the principal didn’t even speak with the person he was writing about,” said B-CC parent and then-Parent-Teacher-Student Association president Lyric Winik, who described feeling “stunned” by the letter at the time. She said she learned Mooney hadn’t spoken to Engler about the incident until over 24 hours after it occurred, which Engler also alleges in the body of his complaint.
Winik said she received a phone call from school administrators the afternoon of the incident—a Wednesday—alerting her to “a human resources issue” involving two students in a classroom, without any mention of hate bias. She said she was “stunned” to read Mooney’s community letter two days later and felt “sick to my stomach” by his characterization of what happened. She said in her experience as PTSA president, the situation involving Engler is far from the first time she’s seen a school investigation mishandled by the B-CC administration.
“It’s not a fair process. They’re tasking administrators with investigative responsibilities that they are not equipped to handle and on topics that they are not adequately prepared to investigate,” Winik said. “Almost every [MCPS] investigation I’ve seen has not followed any consistent pattern, except for one thing: During it, somebody was harmed.”
Representatives from the Montgomery County Education Association—a local union that represents over 14,000 MCPS educators—did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
Engler’s complaint also suggests the incident is part of a “disturbing record of bungled communications” and a “blatant disregard for procedure and policies” on Mooney’s part, citing several recent examples.
“Over the past academic year alone, Mooney: failed to inform the community of blatantly anti-Semitic classroom rantings by a chemistry teacher; created needless, widespread hysteria by a poorly communicated school-wide lockdown; and falsely accused a student of anti-Semitic social media postings,” the complaint alleges.
On behalf of MCPS, Cram declined to comment on the allegations. School board president Karla Silvestre (At-large) did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit.
Engler’s complaint asks for $75,000 in damages to be awarded to him following a jury trial. The complaint also asks the court to order Mooney and the school board to issue a declaration rescinding the Feb. 10 letter and admitting to violating MCPS policies and procedures, including hate bias incident response protocols.
In written responses to questions from MoCo360, Engler described the situation as “symptomatic of the bloat and dysfunction throughout MCPS.” He reiterated that no disciplinary action has ever been taken against him related to the matter and said he remains “in good standing” with MCPS. He said he is currently on medical leave of absence “to attend to my mental health after this incident” but said he hopes to return to the classroom once he’s been cleared to do so by his doctors.
A pretrial conference for the lawsuit is scheduled for June 6, 2024.