james

A COSTLY SOLUTION: The city Department of Education agreed to a $1.1 million payout to three black Teachers and an Assistant Principal who in a Federal lawsuit claimed they were discriminated against by Pan American International High School’s former Principal Minerva Zanca. Above, educators and advocates gathered at the steps of City Hall on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to call on the DOE to bring justice to one of the Teachers, Lisa-Erika James.

The Manhattan U.S. Attorney announced May 18 that the city Department of Education has agreed to pay more than $1.1 million to three black Teachers who were victims of racial bias and an Assistant Principal who was retaliated against for reporting the Principal who discriminated against them.

The settlement brings an end to the 2016 lawsuit brought by then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, which claimed that during the 2012-2013 school year, the DOE allowed Pan American International High School’s then-Principal, Minerva Zanca, to use racist language and discriminate against the only black Teachers at the school—John Flanagan, Heather Hightower and Lisa-Erika James.

'A Gorilla in a Sweater'

Ms. Zanca, who became the Principal of Pan American 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.

The suit also included claims that Ms. James, who was tenured, was discriminated against when Ms. Zanca cut funding for the successful theater program the Teacher oversaw, eventually resulting in student productions being cancelled.

Ms. James, who now teaches at LaGuardia High School, said during a January press conference held days before a trial was set to begin that the mistreatment caused “tremendous pain in these last seven years.”

“It impacted my self-esteem, my ability to think about myself as professional,” she said.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan approved the settlement, in which the DOE agreed to pay a total of $1,187,500 to the four educators and to provide anti-discrimination training to school Superintendents.

'Counter to Our Core Values'

“The discrimination in this case was invidious, unlawful, and counter to our core values,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement.

Mr. Riccardo said that he was retaliated against because he refused to give an unsatisfactory rating to Ms. Hightower after evaluating her classroom performance. Ms. Zanca accused him of “sabotaging her plan,” had school security remove him from the building, and attempted to initiate DOE investigations against him, the claim stated.

The Assistant Principal was terminated for not cooperating with Ms. Zanca, and he, Mr. Flanagan and Ms. Hightower were all given unsatisfactory ratings for the end of the year, according to the suit.

Mr. Riccardo alerted Superintendent Juan Mendez about Ms. Zanca’s behavior, but the DOE continued to stand by the controversial Principal, despite the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finding reasonable cause that she discriminated against the staff members.

City Still Backs Her

She retired in 2016. None of the educators who claimed they were targeted continued working at Pan American after the 2012-2013 school year.

Nicholas Paolucci, a city Law Department spokesman, said that Ms. Zanca “categorically denies the allegations of discrimination.”


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