Woman Hits Philly School District With Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
Germantown's La'Shanda Wilburn claims Steven Sykes made numerous unwanted sexual advances and blocked her path when she tried to get away.
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Philadelphia School District Hit with Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
Philadelphia School District employee La’Shanda Wilburn just filed a federal lawsuit against the district, claiming that Steven Sykes, who worked above her as an assistant principal, sexually assaulted and harassed her.
Wilburn, a 38-year-old Germantown resident, alleges that Sykes, who is 53, began his campaign of sexual harassment against her the first day she met him at Martin Luther King High School, in 2021. Wilburn had been working there as a special education aide, and Sykes, an assistant principal, became her supervisor late in August 2021 after he transferred in from a different school in the city. She’d previously decided to transfer into a position as a school safety officer, and she informed Sykes of this at their first meeting.
According to the complaint, what happened next started out with comments like, “I’m going to enjoy you while I have you” and “I miss you already.” Soon, Wilburn alleges, Sykes was communicating with her in a “sexually inappropriate manner on a daily basis,” reads the lawsuit. Sykes allegedly asked for her personal cell, which she felt obliged to give him, and he began contacting her on it.
Wilburn alleges that Sykes, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, kept trying to get her into his office alone. In one instance, when she mentioned she was cold, Sykes invited her upstairs to his office to “get some heat,” claims the suit. Then, Wilburn alleges, Sykes encountered Wilburn in a stairwell and gave her an unwelcome hug. She says she tried to pull away but that he wouldn’t let go of her until she shoved her elbow into him.
Soon after the stairwell incident, Wilburn alleges, she showed up early for work and her classroom wasn’t unlocked yet. She says she asked Sykes to unlock it but that he refused and insisted she wait in his office instead. Once inside his office, Wilburn claims Sykes said he needed to move closer to her and that he wanted her assistance with a spreadsheet. And while she was typing on the spreadsheet, Sykes gave her another unwanted hug, according to the suit.
Wilburn says she pushed Sykes away and told him he was going to get into trouble. “I can’t get in trouble by myself,” he allegedly replied before “moving his hands across her breasts and … massaging her shoulders.” Wilburn says she didn’t move, because she was “paralyzed with fear.”
According to the complaint, Sykes then moved to lock his office door with Wilburn inside. She says she immediately asked him to open the door and told him that she needed to leave. But he allegedly blocked the office door and told her she couldn’t leave until she gave him a hug. Wilburn refused and while she was gathering her belongings, she alleges that Sykes came up behind her and “pressed his pelvis into her buttocks.”
Within moments, Sykes allegedly asked Wilburn if she was going to “tell on” him and if she’d be willing to keep the “secret” for him.
Wilburn says she immediately filed a report with the Philadelphia School District, claiming “sexual assault and pervasive sexual harassment,” according to the suit. But in the following days, she says she was forced to continue working with Sykes, who remained her supervisor. Finally, the school district transferred Sykes to an assistant principal position at a different school.
Wilburn began her new job as a safety officer with the district in September 2021 — about a month after she first encountered Sykes — but she says her problems didn’t end there. According to the suit, her supervisor in the safety department was aware of her complaint against Sykes and has retaliated against her repeatedly by screaming at and acting rudely to her in a way in which he does not address the other safety officers, and by repeatedly transferring her from school to school. She says there have been at least seven transfers and that there’s no business reason for them.
“The allegations here are very disturbing,” says David Koller, Wilburn’s attorney. “No employee should have to endure what Ms. Wilburn had to go through. And employers need to make sure that policies they have in place that say it is illegal to sexually harass someone at work are more than just words on paper and that the employers actually protects the victim employee. If you say you have zero tolerance, then have zero tolerance.”
The suit seeks unspecified damages.
Wilburn still works for the school district, Koller confirms.
When contacted for comment, the Philadelphia School District said it does not comment on pending litigation. And a spokesperson for the district refused to even say whether Sykes is still employed there, and in what role. His LinkedIn page indicates that he is a “principal” in the district, and two district sources say Sykes is still working for the district in an administrative capacity. Messages to the district email address for Sykes went unreturned.
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All Philly Today Sports Desk coverage is provided by Sandy Hingston.