Feds Flag Racism at Diverse NYC High School

     MANHATTAN (CN) — The leadership of the diverse Pan American International High School in Queens has a racism problem, including a principal who called a black teacher a “gorilla in a sweater,” federal prosecutors claim in a bias lawsuit filed Thursday.
     The year Minerva Zanca became principal in 2012, the Elmshurst-neighborhood school — which boasts of its diversity and programs for hundreds of English-language learners from Latin America — employed 27 teachers, only three of whom were black.
     Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says that Zanca unloaded on racist slurs against two of them: John Flanagan and Heather Hightower.
     Zanca asked his assistant principal Anthony Riccardo whether he saw Flanagan’s “big lips quivering” during a meeting, and said that she could not help but laugh at Flanagan because he reminded her of a Tropicana commercial where a black man “with those same lips” danced down a supermarket aisle, prosecutors allege.
     In a separate incident, Zanca complained that Flanagan could “never” have “fucking nappy hair” like Hightower, according to the 11-page complaint.
     Prosecutors say that Pan American’s third black teacher, Lisa-Erika James, oversaw the school’s drama productions, and Zanca tried to undermine them by cutting the costs of the production.
     “Ultimately, James agreed to pay the costs out of her own pocket, and the production was not cancelled,” the complaint states.
     James spent about a decade with the Department of Education before being assigned to the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of substitutes who lost their daily teaching positions — in September 2015.
     Zanca also insisted — over her assistant Riccardo’s protests — on giving Hightower an unsatisfactory lessons rating that would have made it difficult for her to obtain tenure, according to the complaint.
     Indignant at Riccardo’s refusal, Zanca yelled that he was “sabotaging her plan,” and called security to remove him from the school, prosecutors say.
     That did not end Zanca’s alleged vendetta.
     Prosecutors say that the principal filed two complaints against Riccardo with the Department of Education’s internal investigatory offices, which declined to bring any charges.
     Undeterred, Zanca had an assistant principal from another school — Eduardo Medrano — assign Flanagan an unsatisfactory lessons rating, according to the complaint.
     Hightower and Flanagan were Pan American’s only untenured teachers to receive unsatisfactory ratings, prosecutors say.
      Their positions were both discontinued — and Riccardo resigned — in the summer of 2013.
     Their complaint also accuses the school’s superintendent, Juan Mendez, of ignoring the allegations, even after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission corroborated them.
     In a statement, Bharara called the conduct unfathomable for its time and place.
     “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. “Yet that is what we allege happened at Pan American International High School.”
     A New York City Law Department spokesman said that it is reviewing the complaint.
     Prosecutors allege six counts against the New York Department of Education for bias.
     The first count accuses the agency of tolerating pattern or practice of discrimination, and the others target discrimination against the individual teachers and retaliation against Riccardo.
     Devora Kaye, press secretary for the Department of Education, said in a statement, “All employees’ work environments must be safe and supportive, and we have zero tolerance for any discrimination.”
      Zanca, who served as Pan America’s principal between August 2012 and June 2015, did not have a prior disciplinary history during the 27 years that she worked within the Department of Education.
     Since September 2015, she served as a part-time counselor at Brooklyn’s Frederick Douglass Academy IV Secondary School, where she now makes $55,670 a year, according to the department.

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