Feds sue former principal of Elmhurst high school and city for racist actions against black teachers

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An Elmhurst high school principal discriminated against three black teachers and retaliated against an assistant principal who stood up to her, according to a lawsuit the federal government filed against the city’s Department of Education (DOE) on Thursday.

The lawsuit alleges that Minerva Zanca, who led the Pan American International High School at 45-10 94th St. for three years, filed negative reviews and used racial slurs against the three educators in the 2012-13 school year. Zanca even went as far as to cut one teacher’s popular extracurricular program, according to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York.

The federal lawsuit names Zanca and School Superintendent Juan Mendez as co-defendants with the city Department of Education (DOE) over alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. If successful, the suit would allow the Department of Justice to take action against the DOE to remediate the discriminatory actions, while also providing compensatory damages for the educators affected.

“It is 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 in a statement on Thursday. “This 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.”

When contacted by QNS for comment, DOE spokesperson Devora Kaye said, “All employees’ work environments must be safe and supportive, and we have zero tolerance for any discrimination.”

Soon after Mendez hired Zanca in August 2012 as Pan American’s new principal, according to the lawsuit, Zanca began targeting two untenured black teachers, John Flanagan and Heather Hightower. In one instance, Zanca gave unsatisfactory ratings for lesson plans before both teachers had submitted their plans for evaluation.

Zanca allegedly made racially charged comments about the teachers to Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo. According to the lawsuit, Zanca stated to Riccardo that Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater” and that she could “never” have “f**king nappy hair” like her. In another instance, Zanca remarked to Riccardo about Flanagan’s “big lips.”

Federal prosecutors also claimed that Zanca took discriminatory actions against tenured teacher Lisa-Erika James and sabotaged the theater program she directed. During the 2012-13 school year, Zanca repeatedly attempted to cancel student performances, refused to pay for production expenses and further claimed that the school could not pay James overtime wages for more than five hours of rehearsal each week. These statements were made, Bharara noted, even thought Pan American had sufficient funds to pay for more rehearsal.

The theater program, popular among Pan American students, was ultimately forced to cancel its second production of the school year.

Then, in the spring of 2013, Riccardo refused a request from Zanca that she give him an unsatisfactory rating for a submitted lesson plan. The lawsuit claimed that Zanca yelled at Riccardo, then had school security escort him from the building. She then filed two interoffice complaints with the DOE against Riccardo; both claims were ultimately proven unwarranted by the DOE.

At the conclusion of the school year, prosecutors said, Zanca gave Riccardo, Flanagan and Hightower unsatisfactory ratings on their year-end reviews. Riccardo would ultimately resign his post; Flanagan and Hightower are no longer employed by DOE. James, meanwhile, is part of the DOE’s substitute teacher pool.

Mendez and the DOE received reports of Zanca’s alleged wrongdoings but did not take any disciplinary action against her, according to the lawsuit. Zanca retired as Pan American principal in June 2015 and now serves as a part-time guidance counselor at the Frederick Douglas IV Academy in Brooklyn.

The DOE still did nothing to resolve the situation even after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause to believe in the discrimination charges against Zanca, prosecutors noted. Flanagan would file a lawsuit against the DOE, Zanca and Mendez in October 2013; a federal judge denied the defendants’ request to dismiss the case in August 2015, leading to further action by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

According to the DOE, cases regarding the allegations against Zanca and Mendez were transferred to the DOE’s legal office when court complaints were filed.

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