By Susan Edelman | May 19, 2018 | 9:18pm |
When Shaunte Penniston complained that her principal was making sexual demands, the city Department of Education not only failed to investigate, she alleged, but immediately notified the principal — who promptly had her fired.
The teacher then filed a lawsuit, which has dragged on in court for five years, the city fighting it at every step. But even if Penniston wins her case, it’s too late for the DOE to punish her alleged tormentor, Antonio K’tori. Under state law, educators with tenure cannot be brought up on disciplinary charges more than three years after their alleged misconduct.
“It’s a system that gives predators a platform and access to victims,” Penniston told The Post. “Nothing is done, and there are protections for perpetrators.”
The loophole helps explain why principals have kept their six-figure DOE jobs despite multiple sex-harassment complaints and millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded settlements paid to accusers.
“It’s a terrible burden on the teachers who are complaining, and a terrible burden on taxpayers, because we have to pay large amounts to settle these cases — and then the salaries of the principals in perpetuity,” said education advocate Leonie Haimson.
In a shocking example, the city paid a total $830,000 to settle five lawsuits — including four for sexual harassment and retaliation — against Howard Kwait, principal of John Bowne HS in Flushing, Queens. One assistant principal claimed he asked her and female colleagues for threesomes, rubbed against her and offered her oral sex as a reward if she could produce a high graduation rate.
After The Post asked about the mounting payments, new Chancellor Richard Carranza removed Kwait from the school and “reassigned” him to an unspecified office where he won’t manage anyone, officials said.
But Kwait will still collect his $156,671 salary, get contractual raises and accumulate pension credits.
The DOE said it can’t discipline or terminate Kwait because the three-year statute of limitation for bringing charges against him has expired.
Likewise, the DOE won’t discipline David Jimenez, who makes $173,707 a year as principal of the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in Harlem.
Last month, the city settled a second sex-harassment suit against Jimenez, agreeing to pay assistant principal Felicia Bray $150,000. But it’s been nearly nine years since Jimenez’s alleged harassment of Bray. Among her complaints, Bray said Jimenez grabbed her from behind and fondled her breasts, forcing her to fight him off.
Penniston, now 35, accuses K’tori of hitting on her as soon as she joined PS 15 in Springfield Gardens, Queens in early 2012.
On her first day of work, her suit says, K’tori told Penniston she was “pretty” and demanded “she could not maintain a social life because she would be spending all her time with him after school and on weekends.”
He warned he “had the power to make Penniston’s time at PS 15 ‘miserable’ but she would be fine if she did what she was ‘supposed to do.’ ”
When Penniston rebuffed his advances, he began to retaliate, her suit says. K’tori never observed her classroom performance but by year’s end rated her “D” for “doubtful.”
Penniston complained to the teachers union, which did nothing, she told The Post. “My claims fell on deaf ears. They were waiting for me to be assaulted before taking any action. I felt like a sitting duck.”
Penniston also complained to K’tori’s boss, District 29 Superintendent Lenon Murray. Instead of investigating, Murray terminated her based on charges “fabricated” by K’tori, her suit says.
Little did Penniston know that Murray was himself a sex harasser. The superintendent was arrested in 2017 for grabbing a school employee’s butt and breasts. The victim charged Murray had abused her for years. Her suit against the DOE is pending.
Murray, who was fired, pleaded guilty March 6 to misdemeanor forcible touching and was ordered to enter a 26-week sex-offender program, the Queens District Attorney’s Office said.
The city Law Department has disputed Penniston’s sex-harassment claims, insisting she was fired for “poor performance.” But a judge has rejected the city’s bid to dismiss the suit.
While it’s too late now to charge K’tori with sexual misconduct, the DOE quietly removed him from PS 15 in March after it substantiated a “conflict of interest,” officials told The Post. Sources said he was running an outside business on city time. He could not be reached for comment, and DOE officials would not discuss the matter.
Meanwhile, last month, one of several 8- and 9-year-old girls allegedly molested by teacher Simon Watts at PS 15 between 2007 and 2009 won a $16 million jury award against the city. Parents blamed the DOE and K’tori for “negligent supervision.” Watts is serving a 35-year prison term. The city is appealing the verdict.
In another case, a school’s female principal failed to act on sex-harassment complaints against a male underling.
Dayne Mclean, an assistant principal at Globe School of Environmental Research in The Bronx, allegedly licked his lips while telling literacy coach Lisa DeLeo, “You’re very sexy.”
Despite complaints to Principal Rashaunda Shaw and Assistant Principal Sharon Spann, the harassment did not stop, DeLeo’s suit says. Once, she alleged, Mclean sat in a chair across from her desk, pulled his pants up tight around his genitals and gyrated. “This was a very traumatizing experience for her,” said DeLeo’s lawyer, Daniela Nanau.
The city paid DeLeo $110,000 to settle. Mclean, now an assistant principal at the STEAM Bridge School in The Bronx, makes $117,578 a year.
Other school leaders still in DOE jobs despite sex-harass complaints include:
- Carlos Borrero, principal at the HS for Community Leadership, who was accused of telling a teacher to “use her assets,” “wear sexy outfits” and flirt. She refused to comply and resigned. DOE settlement: $60,000. Borrero, still principal at the school, makes $161,871 a year.
- John W. Chase Jr., former Bronxdale HS principal, made numerous crude comments such as telling workers a new copy machine “even has a hole in it where you can stick your d–k and get a blow job,” a DOE probe found. DOE settlement: $175,000. Chase was demoted to assistant principal. Now at Felisa Rincon de Gautier Institute for Law and Public Policy, his salary is $130,629.
Each of the administrators has denied misconduct, and in settling the suits the DOE admitted no wrongdoing:
“We treat every case of sexual harassment extremely seriously and work to swiftly address complaints and take appropriate disciplinary action,” spokesman Doug Cohen said.
But Mona Davids, president of the NYC Parents Union, said accused principals should be removed pending probes.
“Clearly the DOE is protecting these principals by running out the clock on the statute of limitations,” Davids said. “They’re not good leaders, and they’re a danger to our kids. If an adult is not safe around that person, what makes you think a child is?”
Last week, the city said its lawyers handling sex-harassment suits will not block disciplinary action, if warranted.
“While there is no bar on the pursuit of discipline while litigation is pending, we’re instituting a more formal process where city agencies will be made aware of facts that come to light during litigation that may influence the agency’s disciplinary process,” a Law Department spokesman said.