Educators head to City Hall ahead of Queens high school teacher discrimination suit trial

Lisa-Erika James, a former teacher at Queens’ Pan American International High School, said her former principal discriminated against her and other colleagues, using racist language and taking retaliatory actions against her when she complained.

That led to a federal lawsuit filed in 2016 which will reach a courtroom on Feb. 4. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, James rallied with her fellow colleagues, union leaders and other allies outside City Hall seeking justice either through a successful trial or through a settlement with the city.

‘The city should settle, there is still an opportunity to have justice here,” said James’ attorney, Erica Shnayder, of Arce Law Group. “But if not, we’ll be at trial.”

James was one of three teachers at the Elmhurst high school who accused a former principal, Minerva Zanca of using racist language, discriminatory and retaliatory behavior during the 2012-13 school year. All three of the teachers and the school’s assistant principal left as a result.

A lawsuit filed by Arce Law Group alleged that the city’s Department of Education allowed for Zanca’s alleged discriminatory behavior to happen without punishment.

The lawsuit alleges that Zanca targeted two untenured teachers, John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, by giving them unsatisfactory performance ratings. She is also accused of telling her then-assistant principal, Anthony Riccardo, that the pair would receive poor ratings before the performance reviews began and made derogatory comments about the instructors — including saying that Flanagan had “big lips” and that Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater” and she could “never have f**king nappy hair like her.”

The suit further claims that the assistant principal “was discharged in retaliation for opposing Principal Zanca’s discrimination,” according to the law firm.

Zanca, who’s no longer principal of Pan American International, also allegedly tried to sabotage the popular theater program which James ran, claiming that there were no available funds in the school’s budget — and that the school could not pay her overtime for overseeing rehearsals.

“After I left the school, though, those funds suddenly were in the budget,” said James at the press conference.

A spokesperson for the City’s Law Department said that the DOE is committed to its inclusive polices and is preparing to go to court.

“Based on our review, we believe these allegations have no merit,” the spokesperson said.