Ex-Norfolk Academy teacher accused of bullying, belittling students says she was trying to hold them ‘accountable’

In her last few years of teaching third grade boys at Norfolk Academy, Joan Allison was repeatedly accused of bullying and belittling her students.

Allison told jurors this week during a civil trial in U.S. District Court she didn’t believe she’d done anything wrong. She said she was simply trying to “make the boys accountable” when they did poor work, misbehaved, or failed to do what was expected. A college-preparatory school like Norfolk Academy had high standards, she said, and the students needed to be able to meet them.

Allison, who is Black, resigned from the school in 2019 after being told she wouldn’t be allowed to continue teaching third grade due to an “unprecedented” number of troubling complaints against her by parents.

She was offered a new position that involved social justice research and teaching — which she helped create and initially accepted — then later rejected. She filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against the academy and its longtime headmaster, Dennis Manning, in December 2020.

Allison’s trial began Tuesday and is expected to last about a week. She testified Thursday and Friday and was the last plaintiff’s witness to be called. The defense began its case Friday afternoon by calling two administrators and the mother of a boy who’d been in Allison’s class. More parents are expected to testify next week.

Allison taught third grade boys for 22 years at the school, where students are divided by gender in first through fourth grades. She said she had a good working relationship with Manning until around 2016, when she began raising concerns about “an increase in racially intolerant incidents” among students and faculty.

During Allison’s tenure, less than 9% of the students and teachers at Norfolk Academy’s lower school, which serves grades one to six, were Black, according to her lawsuit. Since Manning took over as headmaster in 2001, the overall percentage of students of color in grades one through 12 at the school grew from 5% to 25%, according to testimony during the trial.

Allison said she repeatedly offered ideas on how to deal with the racial incidents. Manning incorporated some of her proposals, she said, but seemed to ignore others. In the months and years that followed, Allison said when parents complained about her, she wasn’t always told about it, and wasn’t included in the process of resolving the issues.

“After that it got tense,” she testified. “I was no longer believed. I was accused without (getting) my point of view.”

Allison said she began to feel she was being treated differently than white teachers. She was “blindsided” and “heartbroken” when Manning told her she could no longer teach third grade and would be reassigned, she said.

Defense attorney Charles Meyer asked Allison about many of the parents’ troubling reports, including one about a boy who’d repeatedly vomited in class because he was so anxious, another who urinated on himself because he didn’t think he could go to the bathroom and others who were taken to see psychologists and other medical professionals to deal with the trauma their parents said they suffered in the third grade.

“Don’t you think that the school has a duty to respond?” Meyer asked, referring to the complaints. Allison agreed they needed to respond, but said she should have been included in the process, and wasn’t always.

“At the end of the day, isn’t it about what’s best for the kids?” Meyer asked.

“Yes,” Allison said.

In other testimony Friday, the mother of a boy in Allison’s class during her last year at Norfolk Academy told jurors how her son went from loving school in the first and second grades to hating it in third.

He grew anxious that year and had trouble sleeping, she said. She took him to a psychologist and he continued to get treatment throughout third grade. He didn’t need it after that school year, she said, and went back to loving school.

Susan Duquette, a Norfolk Academy administrator and guidance counselor for 38 years whose sons attended the school, said she was so concerned by the number and types of complaints against Allison, she wrote a letter to Manning asking that her grandson not be placed in her class.

She said she’d always avoided getting involved in those decisions in the past, but felt compelled that time.

When asked how she felt about a teacher alleging they’d been racially discriminated against by school officials, Duquette said it was “disturbing” and “distressing.”

“It truly breaks my heart that this is an accusation being made about the school that I love and care deeply about,” she said.

Jane Harper, jane.harper@pilotonline.com