At a Queens, N.Y. high school, teachers of color allegedly endured discrimination and racist comments from the former principal in 2012-13.



Queens, N.Y. Principal’s Discriminatory Behavior Leads to $1 Million in Damages for Former Teachers

“Looked like a gorilla in a sweater.”

“F**king nappy hair.”

“Big lips quivering.”

Those statements did not come from a closed Facebook group or an alt-right message board or website.

Those statements came from Minerva Zanca, the former principal at Pan American High School in Queens, N.Y.

Emphasis on “former principal” because Zanca no longer has her job because of racially insensitive comments like that, and the city is out $1 million after settling lawsuits with the teachers who were the target of those racial insults from Zanca.

The New York Daily News reported, “The hefty payout comes after the federal Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the city Education Department in 2016 for allowing a ‘pattern and practice of discrimination’ to flourish at Pan American High School during the 2012-13 school year.

“Three teachers and one assistant principal said they suffered the wrath of former school principal Minerva Zanca, who was allegedly determined to force out Black teachers with negative performance evaluations.”

Assistant principal Anthony Riccardo says that he was removed from the school after refusing to give negative evaluations to three Black schoolteachers.

Two days before the end of the 2012-13 school year, Riccardo came forward with his allegations of discrimination against Zanca.

The former principal accused Riccardo of “sabotaging her plans.”

As a result, Zanca lodged two Department of Education (DOE) complaints against Riccardo.

He now works as an assistant principal at a private school.

Riccardo said coming forward against Zanca amounted to “career suicide.”

The ordeal left him disillusioned about education.

He stayed away from the education profession for five years because of his experiences.

“What I realized about the DOE was they didn’t have the best interests of students,” said Riccardo. “The thing that angers me is how much they protected these people who said these comments.”

Unfortunately for Zanca, her behavior led to her own removal from Pan American High School.

A 2016 report states that, “Zanca allegedly told Riccardo that one teacher, Heather Hightower, ‘looked like a gorilla in a sweater.’ She is also accused of asking Riccardo if he had seen teacher John Flanagan’s ‘big lips quivering’ during a meeting. She also allegedly made comments about Hightower’s hair, saying that she could never have f—king nappy hair.”

While Zanca could never have nappy hair, the city can never get back the money they lost because of her racial comments about subordinates.

Hightower will receive $362,500.

Flanagan will receive $500,000.

Riccardo received $175,000 in a settlement.

Former teacher Lisa-Erika James refused a settlement.

Her case headed to court this week.

Despite the settlements, the city did not admit any discrimination.

In an official statement, the city Law Department said, “The Department of Education is committed to supporting people of all backgrounds. Based on our assessment, these teachers were not discriminated against. The parties have decided that ending this legal matter was in their best interests.”

While Hightower and Flanagan were not tenured, James was a tenured teacher.

During the 2012-13 school year, Zanca tried to cancel two of James’ plays saying that the school did not have a large enough budget to stage the plays.

James called the alleged discrimination “astonishing,” which has caused tremendous pain in the last seven years.

The tenured teacher said, “It impacted my self-esteem, my ability to think about myself as a professional. With all of this training and skill I thought I was bringing to the table, she undermined it and I just felt very sad. Sorrow and anger. I had to grieve. It was like a death. The loss of my program and everything that I built up.”

In a statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said, “That a school administrator could act in such an egregiously offensive manner is particularly disconcerting. Both the City and the DOE should recognize this trauma and its adverse effect on both physical and mental health.”

James told the Manhattan Federal Court that people need to be held accountable for racism and discrimination in the public school system.

On Tuesday, James said, “With the accountability needs to come an actionable plan to prevent this from happening to other teachers who love to teach and work with young people—especially young people of color and marginalized communities. I’m concerned obviously with the fact that in 2020 I’m still even having to fight systemic racism in the public school system.”

Nicholas Paolucci, a DOE spokesperson, said the city will “defend this principal who did not discriminate.”

Paolucci went on to say that Zanca “made sound pedagogical decisions.”

However, Peter Lamphere, a former colleague of the teachers, said that Zanca’s treatment of teachers was “egregious discrimination.”

Lamphere said the DOE’s lack of support for the teachers “highlights the need for greater accountability for principals and superintendents in order to stop harassment and abuse of educators and the poisoning of the educational environment in our schools with racism.” 

James added, “There was a grave injustice done to us and I am a believer in justice. So when I feel I have been treated unfairly, then I feel like it’s my responsibility to say something.”

Leave a Reply