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Former Newark BOE employee sues district for allegedly allowing hostile work environment

A man in a grey suit sits behind a desk as he looks over to the woman next to him during a Newark school board meeting in November 2018.

Superintendent Roger León chats with board members at a school board meeting in November 2018.

Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat

The Newark school district is facing a lawsuit from a former employee who claims she was harassed, discriminated against, and intimidated by district upper management, including Superintendent Roger León. 

The incidents allegedly took place between September 2019 and throughout 2020 before the employee, Kristen Hunter, was fired in June 2020, according to the lawsuit filed in New Jersey Superior Court at the end of June. The suit claims the harassment started after Hunter, a former sourcing analyst for the board of education, asked her then-boss, Sherelle Spriggs, for a half day off to take her disabled child to school. 

After Spriggs denied the request citing a “blackout period,” Hunter took her request to León, who granted the time off, according to the lawsuit. Hunter alleges Spriggs retaliated against her for going to León and “sabotaged” her efforts to attend professional development classes, tampered with her time records to lower her paychecks, and ostracized her from other colleagues. 

Newark Board of Education spokesperson Nancy Deering said the district does not comment on pending litigation. The lawsuit also names school business administrator Valerie Wilson, affirmative action officer Keith Barton, and assistant superintendent Yolanda Mendez, along with 20 other unidentified defendants. Spriggs, Wilson, Barton, and Mendez did not respond to requests for comment. 

The lawsuit also claims Wilson ignored Spriggs’ behavior and dismissed the evidence Hunter presented her with, including proof Spriggs tampered with payroll records and hindered her efforts to attend professional development classes. Hunter also alleges that leading up to her firing, León sent “sexually explicit text messages” about her to the assistant school business administrator, Krystal Whitlock. According to the lawsuit, Whitlock invited Hunter to dinner where she then proceeded to “ask invasive questions about Hunter’s sexual preferences and intimate activities.”

“Hunter was mortified when she saw that Whitlock was texting León what appeared to be details about their conversation,” reads the lawsuit. 

Cars drive by a white building on the corner of Broad Street in Newark

Newark Board of Education employees work at the district building on Broad Street in Newark.

David Handschuh for Chalkbeat

Hunter, whose son is disabled, said she continued to experience harassment from León, including being “publicly shamed” during central office staff meetings for being late to work after her child was having issues with school bus transportation despite her staying late to make up the time, the lawsuit said. León also yelled at Hunter on June 25, 2020, after his decision to have employees bring their kids to work prompted Hunter to raise concerns for parents with children who required additional support for their children. Former colleagues have said that León developed a reputation as “a taskmaster, with flashes of a hot temper.”

Newark school district employees can file formal complaints to its office of affirmative action, led by affirmative action officer Barton. Hunter complained about León’s behavior, which was disregarded by Barton, who handled the complaint, the lawsuit alleges. Mendez took over Hunter’s complaint and proceeded to send Hunter a letter that included Leon and in-house counsel Alexander D’Jamoos, according to the lawsuit. Hunter was terminated shortly after on June 29, 2020.

This isn’t the first time the district has been sued over allegations of harassment.

In 2019, former Newark Public Schools students filed multiple lawsuits that claim school administrators sexually abused them decades ago. In 2020, at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into a complaint related to sexual violence in the Newark school district. It is unclear if it is related to the multiple lawsuits filed in 2019 by former students. Additionally, in 2015 the department opened an investigation related to the denial of disability benefits in Newark Public Schools. Details about the investigation were not readily available. 

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