The newly appointed principal at Science Park High School is facing allegations in an ongoing lawsuit of discrimination, making racist comments, and creating a hostile and retaliatory work environment at a previous Newark school.
In the lawsuit filed in 2019, Marcia Harris, then a first grade teacher at Sussex Avenue School, claims Darleen Gearhart, a former principal at the elementary school, harassed and retaliated against her for more than a year while she worked under her leadership. Christopher Constantino, a former administrator at the same school, is also named in the lawsuit.
NPS spokesperson Nancy Deering said the district does not comment on pending litigation. Gearhart and Constantino did not respond to requests for a comment on the ongoing case.
Gearhart, who was appointed as Science Park principal over the summer, is accused in the lawsuit of making “numerous racist comments” in front of Harris, other Sussex Avenue School employees, and students at the elementary school. The lawsuit also alleges Gearhart referred to the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song often called the Black national anthem, as “disrespectful” on at least one occasion.
David Michelson, one of the attorneys representing Harris in the case, called Gearhart’s appointment to Science Park “alarming.” Harris, an NPS teacher since 2013, was not available to comment due to her pending case.
Harris “feels like the district didn’t take what happened seriously and that is really the alarming part of all of this,” Michelson said. “Gearhart was just moved to another school. Everything was swept under the rug and they have never really acknowledged anything that happened when she was running that school.”
Gearhart, who is white, replaced former principal Kycied Zahir, who is Black. According to 2019 district data, 47% of Science Park students identify as Hispanic and 34% as Black.
Gearhart’s appointment comes amid concerns over principal turnover in the district after first-year predecessors were ousted from their positions. It also comes as the departure of vice principals and leadership of color raises questions about district officials’ stated goal of elevating people of color to leadership positions, especially men. Gearhart also faces challenges in the highly selective magnet school that has been accused of underenrolling Black students.
“The lawsuit is, at this point, preparing to go in front of the judge and then go to trial,” Michelson added.
In the allegations against Constantino, the lawsuit states he began harassing Harris in September 2017. He would enter Harris’s classroom without any work-related purpose “to taunt and harass her,” according to the lawsuit, which says at least one teacher’s aide witnessed the physical and verbal harassment. When Harris complained about Constantino, he allegedly became more aggressive, the suit states.
On Sept. 28, 2018, Constantino allegedly approached Harris “in a confrontational manner,” got into her face, and threatened, “Are you ready to rumble?” the lawsuit says. Harris claims she was then retaliated against with a “Letter of Warning – Insubordination” because she used “district email during the instructional time” to inform superiors about the alleged threat.
Shortly after, Harris went on family and medical leave and, when she returned, her assigned classroom aides were never replaced, the lawsuit read. Gearhart further retaliated against Harris by leaving her alone to supervise a room of 14 children, some as young as 3, in violation of New Jersey laws on staff-to-child ratios, according to the lawsuit.
“Harris still finds it very troubling that when she complained that students weren’t getting the best services that they could be getting, the response from the Gearhart administration was to bully and intimidate and punish her for speaking off rather than to be responsive to her concerns,” Michelson said.
The district’s affirmative action officer Keith Barton became involved in the situation but ultimately directed Gearhart to mediate the situation, the lawsuit claims. In February 2019, Gearhart, assistant superintendent Kathy Duke-Jackson, and Harris held an impromptu meeting to alleviate tensions between Gearhart and Harris to no avail, the lawsuit states.
After speaking with the Newark teachers union, Harris began to send daily emails to Gearhart and Duke-Jackson about having no aides in her classroom but ultimately, Gearhart told her to only email her about the matter, the lawsuit states.
In July 2019, Harris was reassigned from a preschool teacher to a first grade teacher. She is still employed by NPS as a teacher. Her lawsuit is pending a hearing with a judge.
“For the past several years, they moved her to a different grade level and she expressed that she didn’t want to be teaching that,” Michelson said. “The person who made the decision to do that was Gearhart.”
In addition to alleging a hostile work environment, Harris is claiming violations of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination and the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act, also known as the whistleblower law.
Correction: Sep. 2, 2022: A previous version of this story said Gearhart, who is white, replaced former Science Park principal Angela Mincy, who is Black. Gearhart replaced Kycied Zahir, not Mincy.
Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at firstname.lastname@example.org