National News

Principal, Accused in Multiple Lawsuits, Is Reassigned

Posted May 13, 2018 12:13 a.m. EDT

NEW YORK — A Queens high school principal accused of sexual harassment and discrimination in multiple lawsuits, which have cost New York City more than $600,000 to settle, has been reassigned.

Howard Kwait, principal of John Bowne High School since 2006, was reassigned Friday after Richard A. Carranza, the newly appointed schools chancellor, reviewed the lawsuits against Kwait, according to Toya Holness, a Department of Education spokeswoman.

Kwait was transferred “to a central office where he will be closely supervised and will no longer be permitted to manage other employees,” Holness said in a statement. “Schools must be safe, welcome and inclusive environments for all students and staff, and we will do everything in our power to hold employees accountable for meeting these standards.”

Kwait could not be reached for comment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has come under scrutiny recently for the handling of sexual harassment cases across city agencies, especially at the Department of Education. The city has admitted that it has no consistent system to track sexual harassment complaints against employees, making it difficult to analyze the total number of complaints as well as how employees in substantiated cases were disciplined.

Overall, city agencies settled 32 sexual harassment cases from 2014 to 2017 and paid out $4.7 million, according to data released in April. Over that period, 1,312 sexual harassment complaints were lodged, 221 of which were substantiated.

At the Department of Education, 471 sexual harassment complaints were filed from 2014 to 2017, seven of which were substantiated. In 249 instances — more than half of the Department of Education’s cases over that period — the individual who made the sexual harassment complaint withdrew it. City officials said they could not explain why.

De Blasio has been outspoken in support of the #MeToo movement, but when asked about the number of sexual harassment complaints at the Department of Education, he said the agency suffered from a “hyper complaint dynamic.”

That meant, de Blasio said, “that on many fronts we get a certain number of complaints that are not real.” Shortly after making those remarks, de Blasio tried to clarify his statements, saying that those who make complaints deserved to be believed.

“The bottom line is anyone who comes forward will be believed, and we’re going to make sure every complaint is fully investigated,” de Blasio said Friday during his weekly appearance with Brian Lehrer on WNYC.

De Blasio signed a package of 11 bills last week that strengthens harassment protections by requiring annual sexual harassment training at all city agencies; mandating that agencies report sexual harassment data; and extending the statue of limitations on filing a sexual harassment claim to three years after an incident occurs, from the current one-year limit.

Several assistant principals made accusations against Kwait, who earned $157,000 a year as the principal of John Bowne High.

In one lawsuit, guidance counselor Lauren Prettitore accused Kwait of rubbing his body against hers, saying that he would perform oral sex on her if she achieved a high graduation rate and saying that he would like to see her and another female teacher have sex.

In an email sent to the faculty, he called Prettitore and four other women the “five star lesbian club,” according to the lawsuit. She said the Department of Education did nothing to act on her complaints. That case was settled in September for $130,000.

In June 2015 the city settled two cases against Kwait for a total of $275,000. In one of the cases, Sally Maya, an assistant principal, accused Kwait of discriminating against her once she became pregnant. In the other, Maria Catenacci, also an assistant principal, said she was subject to “repeated sexual advances” by Kwait.

In 2013, the city paid $200,000 to settle a lawsuit from Assistant Principal Miriam Zambrano-Lamhaouhi, who accused Kwait of discriminating against her when she became pregnant.

In a continuing lawsuit, Kwait is accused of retaliating against Marc Einsohn, also an assistant principal, who questioned Kwait’s alleged request to inflate student’s grades.

“The case has nothing to do with sexual harassment, and we believe the allegations have no merit,” Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the New York City Law Department, said about Einsohn’s lawsuit.

In 2013, Kwait was fined $4,500, ordered to take sensitivity training and had a letter placed in his file.

The review of Kwait’s file is part of a continuing effort to examine how the Department of Education “can tighten procedures and hold employees accountable,” Holness said.

The city has also announced it will spend $5 million to increase the number of investigators at the Department of Education to 18 from seven. In the future, once a lawsuit is filed, city agencies will transfer their investigation to the Law Department, which will share its findings from the case, allowing disciplinary proceedings to move forward, said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokeswoman for de Blasio.

Asked why Kwait had not been fired, Holness said “the statute of limitations to bring him up on charges has expired.”

Jonathan A. Tand, a lawyer who represents Einsohn and who has sued the Department of Education on behalf of other clients, said the lawsuits against Kwait are proof that the department has an issue with transparency and does not fully investigate sexual harassment and discrimination complaints.

Kwait is “one of those guys who I can’t figure why it took so long to remove from his position,” Tand said. “They seemed to look the other way until given no choice.”

David C. Bloomfield, professor of education law at Brooklyn College, said that the Department of Education bureaucracy makes reporting and investigating sexual harassment difficult and confusing, but that the city should be doing better.

“Mayor de Blasio inherited a system that has long existed, but it’s up to him — especially in light of the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up movement — to be a step ahead and not a step behind,” Bloomfield said.