By Bill Parry
One borough lawmaker was shocked to see Preet Bharara’s latest target. The U.S. attorney in Manhattan announced last week that the federal government had filed a lawsuit against the city’s Department of Education that alleges that the department discriminated against black teachers who worked at an Elmhurst school and retaliated against an assistant principal who spoke out.
The school, the Pan American International High School, is in the lawmaker’s district.
“The allegations brought up in this lawsuit are very, very serious,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said.
The government alleges that during the 2012-2013 school year, the DOE permitted Pan American IPrincipal Minerva Zanca and Superintendent Juan Menedez to discriminate against every black teacher on the staff.
“It’s nearly unthinkable that in this day and age one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the United States would allow racial discrimination and retaliation to flourish,” Bharara said. “Yet, that is what we allege happened at Pan American International High School. Federal civil rights laws prohibit this misconduct. The suit seeks to remedy the violations that occurred at Pan American and ensure that the New York City Department of Education protects its employees’ civil rights in the future.”
The school is located in the Elmhurst Educational Complex, at 45-10 94th St., and it serves 374 recently emigrated English language learners from Latin America, according to its website. During the 2012-2013 school year, Pan American employed 27 teachers, three of whom were black.
Throughout that school year, Principal Zanca purposely targeted John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, two untenured teachers, by giving them unsatisfactory lesson rating in an effort to deny them tenure, according to the complaint. Zanca made derogatory racial comments to Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo, specifically stating that Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater” with “f—-ing nappy hair” and Flanagan had “big lips,” according to the complaint.
Zanca also discriminated against Lisa-Erika James, a tenured teacher who ran the school’s theater program, by canceling plays and cutting funding, according to the complaint
The lawsuit claims that Zanca retaliated against Riccardo for his complaints about her treatment of the three teachers. When Riccardo refused to give an unsatisfactory rating on one of Hightower’s lessons, Zanca allegedly accused him of “sabotaging her plan” and had school security remove him from the building, the complaint said.
The lawsuit also says allegations Zanca engaged in discrimination and retaliation were brought to the attention of Mendez, but the DOE did not take disciplinary action against the principal.
The DOE says its Office of Equal Opportunity opened cases about these allegations and transferred the matters to DOE’s legal office when complaints were filed externally.
“All employees’ work environments must be safe and supportive, and we have zero tolerance for any discrimination,” DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye said.
Title VII authorizes the Department of Justice to commence an action in federal court against the DOE to remedy discrimination and retaliation for opposing discrimination.
The complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages on behalf of Flanagan. Hightower, James and Riccardo. None of the four worked at Pan American International High School after the 2012-2013 school year.
Zanca retired as a principal in 2015, according to the DOE, and neither she nor Mendez had previous disciplinary history with the DOE.
“It’s incredible that in this day and age, in the most diverse district of the most diverse city in the world, situations of racial discrimination still occur,” Peralta said. “It is my hope that the city’s Department of Education takes a hard look at these allegations, and acts to prevent such cases from ever happening again.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr