erika james

ON THE WRONG SIDE OF JUSTICE: On Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Teachers and advocates gathered at the steps of City Hall to call on the Department of Education to bring justice to three black educators who were allegedly targeted by their school’s Principal because of their race. A 2016 lawsuit filed by then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is expected to go to trial Feb. 4. Lisa-Erika James, whose successful theater program was targeted, said she wants to see a change in the DOE’s policies ‘so this doesn’t happen to any other Teacher ever again.’

Do better: that’s the message former staff at Pan American International High School had for the Department of Education at a Jan. 20 rally for justice for three black educators who were allegedly targeted because of their race by the school’s then-Principal.

A 2016 lawsuit brought by then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is finally expected to go to trial Feb. 4. It claimed that during the 2012-2013 school year, the DOE allowed Pan American’s former Principal, Minerva Zanca, to use racist language and discriminate against the only black staffers at the school, John Flanagan, Heather Hightower and Lisa-Erika James.

Ms. James, who now teaches at LaGuardia High School, said that the mistreatment caused “tremendous pain.”

‘Shouldn’t Take 7 Years’

“It’s been seven years. Does it take seven years to address an issue that [Mayor de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard] Carranza have said over and over again you’re adamantly against? We want action and we want action now,” she stated at the press conference.

Ms. Zanca, who became Principal of the Queens school in 2012, allegedly told Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo that Ms. Hightower had “f------ nappy hair” and looked like a “gorilla in a sweater,” and asked him whether he had seen Mr. Flanagan’s “big lips quivering” during a meeting.

When Mr. Riccardo refused to give an unsatisfactory rating to Ms. Hightower after observing her classroom performance, Ms. Zanca accused him of “sabotaging her plan,” called school security to have him removed from the building, and unsuccessfully attempted to initiate DOE investigations against him. The suit claims that Mr. Riccardo was terminated because of retaliation: he, Mr. Flanagan and Ms. Hightower were all given unsatisfactory ratings for the end of the year.

The lawsuit also claimed that the Principal discriminated against Ms. James, who was tenured, by cutting funding for the highly successful theater program she oversaw, eventually resulting in student productions being cancelled.

‘Where’s Accountability?’

Ms. Zanca retired in 2016, and none of the educators who claimed they were targeted continued working at Pan American after the 2012-2013 school year. But the DOE continued to stand by the controversial Principal, even after Mr. Riccardo alerted education officials about her alleged behavior, according to the claims.

“This case is not just about the monetary damage inflicted on these Teachers. It is about justice and accountability in the schools and setting a precedent that our education system does not tolerate racism,” said Peter Lamphere, a Teacher who also worked at Pan American.

Mr. Riccardo, who now serves as an Assistant Principal at a Long Island high school, told news outlet The City that the incident made him realize the DOE “didn’t have the best interests of students.”

“Teaching is part of who I am, and literally when this all happened it was ripped from me,” he said.

Ms. James added that she would like to see changes to the DOE’s policies “so this doesn’t happen to any other Teacher ever again, because clearly the Chancellor’s regulations and the policies that are in place aren’t working.”

Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the city Law Department, noted that three of the four plaintiffs, excluding Ms. James, had already settled with the city. He added that the DOE was “committed to its inclusive policies. Based on our review, we believe these allegations have no merit and we’ll make our case in court.”

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