Shaunte Penniston was excited for her interview to be a special education teacher at PS 15 in Springfield Gardens.
She arrived at the school and met with principal Antonio K’Tori and was invited to work as a teacher beginning on February 27, 2012.
According to Penniston, that’s when the problems started.
She claims during the week before classes would start, K’Tori, having known that Penniston had previously been married, entered her classroom and asked in a “flirtatious tone” if she was ever planning to get married again.
“He told me that we would be spending a lot of time with one another after school hours and that I shouldn’t get too close to certain teachers while I was working here,” Penniston said.
On the first day of school, Penniston said, K’Tori made an advance at her again by stopping a student in the hall and telling the child that she was pretty and asking if the student agreed.
“He also told me that he had the power to make my time there miserable but if I did what I was supposed to, I’d be fine,” she said.
The alleged advances continued and Penniston said she rebuffed each one. At the end of the year, K’Tori issued her a “D” or “doubtful” rating in her year-end review.
“He had never even sat in on one of my classes,” Penniston said. “There is no way he could have known what was going on in my class.”
Having since left PS 15, Penniston filed a lawsuit against the Department of Education and K’Tori for sexual harassment.
“When I wouldn’t take him up on his advances, he began threatening me,” she said. “And he had several teachers on his side, some of whom were romantically involved with him, who did everything he asked of them.”
The teacher claimed that in June 2012 K’Tori threw paper at her and in March 2012, in the presence of lead instructional specialist Renee Holstein and guidance counselor Eileen Ruzzolino, he said Penniston had no power because “she is a woman and that he had all the power because he is a man.”
Penniston’s lawsuit against K’Tori and the DOE was filed July 29, 2013. Vincent White, one of the attorneys handling Penniston’s case, said the lawsuit is still in the discovery phase, which can go on for more than a year and a half. That period involves gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. White, who is part of the Jackson Heights-based law firm White, Ricotta & Marks, which deals with legal issues involving the workplace, said cases like Penniston’s are not uncommon, but that “in her case, it’s pretty extreme.”
White said the problem goes beyond the principal to the entire administration right up to the DOE, which he says is complicit.
“They forge this little kingdom inside the DOE and they think they can do what they want,” he said. “There are laws, and they have to be followed.”
Several years ago, the DOE, which reportedly called K’Tori “arrogant” and “self-centered,” unsuccessfully tried to fire him. The department would not respond to requests to comment on the principal or Penniston’s lawsuit.
While still employed at PS 15, Penniston went to District 29’s representative to the United Federation of Teachers, Joyce Schwartz, in June 2012. Two months later Schwartz and Penniston met with UFT special representative Sharon Ripley and Rona Frasier, director of the UFT’s Queens office. The three union officials were not surprised by the allegations and the lawsuit alleges that they knew Penniston’s looks were K’Tori’s “type.” Penniston requested a transfer from PS 15, saying that she was concerned for her safety.
Frasier made a phone call on her behalf and later returned to the meeting to say the transfer request was denied, Penniston said. The reps also informed her of further steps she could take toward ending the situation.
Penniston returned to PS 15 and received her assignments one week after the meeting.
“I’m bringing this forward because I don’t want this happening to another teacher and I want to be able to teach again,” Penniston said. “He took away that part of my life and I want that back. I love teaching, I always have, but what he did really had an affect on me.”
No one at PS 15, including K’Tori, would comment on the matter.