The former principal at a Queens high school for English language learners allegedly discriminated against the three black teachers on her staff over the course of a year, saying that one "looked like a gorilla in a sweater" and disparaging another for his "big lips quivering," according to a lawsuit filed this week against the Department of Education.
The office of US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara filed the suit, which accuses then-Pan American International High School principal Minerva Zanca of violating Title VII by harassing nontenured teachers John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, as well as tenured teacher Lisa-Erika James, in an effort to force them from their jobs. According to the suit, Principal Zanca made disparaging remarks about the nontenured teachers to her assistant principal, and issued sub-par ratings for lesson plans without first assessing them.
Located in Elmhurst, Queens, Pan American International High School serves about 375 students, according to its website. The majority are recent immigrants from Latin America.
All three black teachers, as well as the school's assistant principal (who was also rated unfavorably), left the DOE after the year of alleged abuses.
"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. "Federal civil rights laws prohibit this misconduct. 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."
Zanca served as principal of Pan American from August 2012 to June 2015, and allegedly harassed those teachers named in the suit during the 2012-13 school year. That year, the school employed 27 teachers, three of whom were black. The school's black teachers, as well as Pan American's assistant principal, all filed complaints against Zanca with the DOE during the summer of 2013; one teacher also filed suit with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which ultimately referred charges to the US Department of Justice.
Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo told investigators that Zanca made racist comments consistently—in addition to comparing Hightower to a gorilla and insulting Flanagan's lips, she allegedly said she could "never" have “fucking nappy hair” like Hightower. Once, Riccardo says she compared Flanagan to a black man “with those same lips” who danced down a supermarket isle in a Tropicana commercial.
James, the third black teacher named in the suit, oversaw an after school theater program that Zanca cut. The suit alleges that Zanca claimed to not have funding to run the program, even though the school "in fact had sufficient money."
During an internal DOE investigation, the suit states, Superintendent Juan Mendez sent an e-mail to the head of the Office of Equal Opportunity & Diversity Management, stating that the allegations against Zanca were "manufactured and untrue." Zanca was never punished.
During the fall of 2012 Zanca also allegedly conveyed to Riccardo that her goal was to have the nontenured black teachers fired, suggesting that the most efficient way to accomplish this was by rating their lessons "unsatisfactory." After Riccardo agreed to meet with Hightower to help her improve her lesson plans, Zanca allegedly told him he “better not make [Hightower] a better teacher.” Two complaints she filed against Riccardo with the DOE's internal investigatory office that year were dismissed, according to the suit.
Hightower, Flanagan and Riccardo were the only three employees at Pan American to receive unsatisfactory ratings for the entire 2012-13 school year.
Zanca retired in June 2015, and now works part-time as a guidance counselor at Frederick Douglass Academy in Bed-Stuy. Her salary is $55,670.
"If that's the case, this is definitely the wrong place for her,” a Frederick Douglas parent told the News. “The majority here are black kids. How can she help us?"
According to the DOE, Zanca and Mendez do not have any disciplinary history with the department to date. The Law Department says it is reviewing the case.
Reached for comment, DOE spokeswoman Devora Kay stated that, "All employees' work environments must be safe and supportive, and we have zero tolerance for any discrimination."