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Former academic leader sues Aspira, says she lost job for backing sexual harassment claim

One of the former top academic officials has sued the nonprofit that operates five charter schools, sayingshe was wrongfully fired for supporting a complaint an employee had filed against the CEO.

Aspira Cyber Charter School is based at the Aspira of Pa. campus on North Second Street.
Aspira Cyber Charter School is based at the Aspira of Pa. campus on North Second Street.Read moreAspira Inc. of Pa.

Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania has some new legal woes.

The Philadelphia-based Latino organization that operates four charter schools in the city and a statewide cyber charter is facing another wrongful termination suit.

In a federal civil rights suit filed this week, Lucila Paramo, former interim chief academic officer and former principal of the Aspira Bilingual Cyber Charter School, alleges she was forced out of her job for helping an assistant counselor who lodged a sexual harassment complaint against Alfredo Calderon, Aspira's CEO.

Aspira on Friday denied the allegations in Paramo's suit.

"The board's decision to not renew Dr. Paramo's contract was made on my recommendation, and it was based solely on the merits," Aspira superintendent Andrea Gonzalez-Kirwin said in a statement. "I was not even aware of  Dr. Paramo's allegations until today."

Paramo's suit said the veteran educator was hired in August 2011 as curriculum director, received praise for her work, and earned several promotions.

The complaint alleges that things changed in November 2014, when Paramo helped an assistant counselor at the cyber school file a sexual harassment complaint against Calderon and backed the woman during an internal investigation.

Afterward, the suit claims, Aspira and the cyber charter launched "a campaign of retaliation against … Paramo for opposing unlawful sexual harassment in the workplace in an effort to force her to resign."

Paramo said she was excluded from meetings and her responsibilities were cut back, including being removed  as program director of a national science bilingual program that she had established at Aspira.

And in November 2014, the treasurer of Aspira's board confronted Paramo's husband at the annual awards dinner for the Most Influential Hispanics in the Delaware Valley and told him that if Paramo didn't stop "opposing unlawful sexual harassment in the workplace, then 'heads would roll, including Doctor Lucila Paramo,' " the suit says.

Paramo filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on May 21, 2015. One month later, she lost her job, effective June 30.

She said Aspira told her that her contract would not be renewed due to an "administrative restructuring."

Paramo maintains that others in similar positions who had not opposed sexual harassment at Aspira kept their jobs.

Gonzalez-Kirwin said Paramo did not have the state certifications to serve as permanent chief academic officer and had not applied for that position.

"Ultimately, I led the reorganization of our leadership team, and near the end of the school year, I made the decision not to renew Dr. Paramo's contract as chief academic officer," she said. "To be clear, I would make the same decision today."

Gonzalez-Kirwin also said that Aspira's board had ordered "a full, independent investigation of the harassment claims referenced in Dr. Paramo's complaint. The claims were found to be groundless."

Among other things, Paramo is seeking lost wages, damages, and recovery of her legal fees.

Paramo's suit is the most recent legal problem facing Aspira. Six months ago, a former accounts payable coordinator filed a whistle-blower suit in federal court alleging she was wrongfully fired by Aspira after she refused to manipulate bookkeeping entries. Juanita Way also said Aspira had retaliated against her for talking to the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office for an investigation into the nonprofit's financial practices. Her suit is pending.

And Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is auditing Aspira's charter schools because of reports that the organization paid a former administrator $350,000 to settle a sexual-harassment complaint and a lawsuit she had filed against Calderon in Common Pleas Court in 2013.

Aspira  has denied the allegations in all the cases.

Aspira, which is based in Hunting Park, focuses on Latino youth and education. In addition to the cyber school, it operates four charter schools in Philadelphia: Olney High; John B. Stetson, Kensington; Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Olney; and Antonia Pantoja, North Philadelphia.