“If I lost seventy-five pounds, would you have sex with me?”
That’s just one of many vulgar remarks attributed to a Bronx special education teacher at the center of a shocking lawsuit in which two female co-workers have accused him of unrelenting sexual harassment.
Public School 97 teacher Michelle Francis, 39, said in the lawsuit that her former co-teacher James Gonzalez pressed himself against her, made lewd sexual comments and repeatedly propositioned her in the classroom in a number of scary and aggressive incidents from 2014 until 2018.
But Francis, who has worked in city schools since 2005 and has a clean disciplinary record, said in her complaint that when she reported the incidents to her principal, she was targeted for retaliation with negative performance reviews.
Joining Francis’ lawsuit is another longtime PS 97 staffer who signed a sworn statement saying Gonzalez also sexually harassed her at the Mace Ave. school.
Francis said behind Gonzalez’s’ sexual overtures was a desperate need to control and bully her, and the Education Department’s track record of punishing women who report sexual harassment made matters worse.
“I woke up scared to go to work every day,” she said. “I knew he was going to ask me to have sex with him again and he’d get angry when I refused.”
Gonzalez, whose worked in city schools since 1986 and also has a clean disciplinary record, did not respond to requests for comment.
Francis said in the complaint that the harassment began in November 2014 when Gonzalez approached her from behind in class and pressed himself against her leg.
In September 2017, when the two were assigned to co-teach a second grade class, Gonzalez’s harassment increased, Francis said in the complaint.
According to the lawsuit, he told Francis that he wanted to lick her all over her body, wanted to perform a sex act on her, asked her if she was interested in a threesome with his wife and asked her if she would have sex with him if he lost 75 pounds.
She also said he put his hand under her skirt and ran it up the back of her thigh.
Francis said in the lawsuit that she told Gonzalez his behavior was upsetting and asked him to stop.
After that, Gonzalez was no longer sexually inappropriate but became angry and spiteful, ignoring her in class and staring at his phone during lessons, she said in the complaint.
Francis said she reported the matter to an assistant principal and mentioned it to her principal, Kathleen Bornkamp. But Francis said Bornkamp refused to investigate, although she moved Gonzalez and Francis to different classrooms in January 2018.
Francis said Bornkamp assigned the two teachers to nearby classrooms on the same floor the following September.
All three of the educators are still at PS 97, where they’ve each worked for more than a decade.
Bornkamp, who started working in city schools in 1986 and has a clean disciplinary history, did not respond to requests for comment.
Francis hired a lawyer and lodged a complaint against Gonzales with the New York State Division of Human Rights in November, where her administrative lawsuit is ongoing.
The separate complaint she filed with the city is on hold while the state weighs her claims.
Francis said that she has lost sleep and missed work over the matter, and is seeing a therapist to cope with major episodes of depression.
“I feel powerless,” she said. “I was scared for my safety.”
A second female PS 97 staffer backed up Francis’s claims in a sworn affidavit added to Francis’s lawsuit, in which she said that she, too, was sexually harassed by Gonzalez at the school in 2006, when he invited her to a threesome and told her that he wanted to perform oral sex on her “for hours.”
That woman, who wants to remain anonymous to avoid retribution, said she never reported Gonzalez because she didn’t believe school administrators would do anything about the situation.
“The DOE covers things up and allows them to stay on the job,” the woman said. “They settle lawsuits but the person is still there.”
Francis’ attorney, Ria Julien, said her client was victimized both by Gonzalez and by a city school system where harassers rarely see punishment.
“Nobody should have to suffer sexual harassment at work,” said Julien. “But it was just tolerated and there was no way in which he was punished or disciplined.”
City school officials and Mayor de Blasio have been criticized for poorly handling sexual harassment claims.
Data released by the city in August showed that Education Department officials closed hundreds of sexual harassment complaints without investigating.
Months earlier, de Blasio drew criticism for saying a “hyper-complaint dynamic” in the city schools contributed to a low number of substantiated sexual harassment claims.