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NYC’s pick for Bronx superintendent is being sued for sexual harassment

Roberto Padilla left his role last year as the head of Newburgh’s school system over allegations of sexual harassment.

Two men face away from the camera and toward a group of smiling people on stairs

Mayor Eric Adams joins Chancellor Banks to announce the appointment of new superintendents on June 27, 2022. Roberto Padilla, who has been accused of sexual harassment, is wearing a tan suit on the second row toward the right.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The city’s new pick for superintendent for the South Bronx’s District 7 left his role last year as the head of Newburgh’s school system after allegations of sexual harassment.

Roberto Padilla was among 14 new superintendents selected Monday, joining another 31 superintendents who were rehired amid a controversial process that promised to include family engagement. 

Padilla, who ran Newburgh schools in upstate New York for seven years, was suspended and later left his post after an independent investigation found he violated New York State’s sexual harassment law, according to a civil lawsuit filed by two former educators.

Padilla, who couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday, denied the allegations in a settlement with the school district.

Former teacher Elizabeth Walsh and Una Miller, a former principal, said they were harassed by Padilla while attending a professional development conference in San Diego, California, in August 2021. 

One evening during the conference, the two women and five other Newburgh school district employees went to a bar, according to the lawsuit. 

Padilla greeted Walsh with an extended hug, wrapping his arms tightly around her body, the lawsuit said. Later that evening, he sat next to her, put his arms around her, and rubbed his knees against hers. According to the lawsuit, he then started describing a couple sitting across from them who were showing public displays of affection. Padilla made sexually explicit noises, the suit said, and he hypothesized whether or not the man would “get lucky” that night. 

“Padilla commented that he and Walsh were ‘cock blocking’ the couple, meaning their presence was preventing the couple from engaging in sexual activity,” the lawsuit stated. 

Later that evening, when a co-worker mentioned Walsh’s bird tattoo, “[Padilla] touched her back, slowly touching his finger over the image of a bird that is part of the tattoo, commenting on the bird’s “big red ass.” The bird is dark gray, not red. Walsh was wearing a red dress, the lawsuit stated. 

At another point during the same evening, Padilla sat across from Miller and started to run his foot across Miller’s foot, the lawsuit said. When she moved away, Padilla smiled. Soon after that, Padilla was at the bar while Miller was heading to the bathroom when he grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her close to him, making their bodies touch. When Miller was about to leave the bar, Padilla said to her “you can’t leave without giving me a hug.” On their walk back to the hotel, Padilla insisted Miller ride a Lyft scooter with him. 

The next morning, Walsh texted a friend, “My boss is a Cuomo!” referring to Padilla’s behavior and former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who had resigned a day earlier following allegations of sexual harassment. 

Both Walsh and Miller filed two separate complaints with the district’s human resources office. They had also said Padilla’s behavior was inappropriate prior to the conference.

Padilla was suspended with pay during an investigation. 

Independent investigator Louis Patack found that Padilla sexually harassed Miller in violation of New York law, according to court documents. A second investigator, Melinda Gordon, was hired to investigate Walsh’s complaint, and she found that Padilla appeared to violate federal Title IX law.

The findings by the investigators were never publicly released, but the lawyers representing the women obtained heavily redacted copies after filing public records requests, according to their attorney Alex Berke. 

The school board voted 6-3 to approve a settlement with Padilla in December 2021, allowing him to resign while continuing to receive salary and health insurance benefits for two years unless he got a new job.

With the settlement, the district said, “there have been no adjudications between the District and Dr. Padilla with a determination that he is guilty of any misconduct.” 

“Dr. Padilla denied the allegations against him and several witnesses who were interviewed expressed their views that no wrongdoing occurred,” the agreement said. “It is undisputed that the allegations would not constitute the elements of any crime.”

Walsh and Miller said that they had to resign after facing retaliation at work. They are suing both Padilla and the Newburgh school district. 

Walsh and Miller said in a statement that they were shocked that Chancellor David Banks and Mayor Eric Adams were putting their trust in Padilla after the complaints. 

“We previously trusted Padilla, and our careers were derailed because of it,” Walsh and Miller said. “The students, families and educators of the Bronx and District 7 deserve better than Padilla, who we saw first hand create a culture of fear and intimidation. We advise the city to re-evaluate this important decision.”

Education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said in a statement, “These claims were investigated, and Dr. Padilla directly addressed them with the community during the hiring process.” 

Padilla was named superintendent of the year in 2021 by New York state, he added. 

“We believe that Dr. Padilla has the track record of success and after community feedback he will best serve the students and families of the Bronx,” Styer said.

Padilla is expected to start his new job on July 1. 

Marcela Rodrigues-Sherley is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Marcela at mrodrigues-sherley@chalkbeat.org.

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