June 9, 2016 Staff Report
The Department of Education is being slapped with a lawsuit for allegedly allowing a principal’s racist behavior and discrimination to persist at an Elmhurst school, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced today.
The lawsuit targets the DOE following allegations of discriminatory practices involving Minerva Zanca, a former principal of the Pan American International High School, located at 45-10 94th Street in Elmhurst. It also targets Superintendent Juan Mendez, who hired Zanca in 2012.
According to the complaint, Pan American International High School employed 27 teachers during the 2012-2013 school year, three of whom were black.
Zanca purposely targeted John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, two untenured black teachers, for unsatisfactory lesson ratings, according to the complaint. Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo has stated that Zanca decided to give Flanagan and Hightower unsatisfactory ratings before she had seen the lesson she was supposed to evaluate.
It didn’t stop there, as Zanca allegedly made derogatory remarks about Flanagan and Hightower to Riccardo.
According to the complaint, Zanca stated that Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater,” asked whether Assistant Principal Riccardo had seen Flanagan’s “big lips quivering” during a meeting and complained that she could “never” have “fucking nappy hair” like Hightower.
She also allegedly stated that she had difficulty not laughing at Flanagan because he reminded her of a Tropicana commercial where a black man “with those same lips” danced down a supermarket aisle.
Zanca also targeted Lisa-Erika James, a tenured black teacher, by cutting the theater program she oversaw, the complaint states. Zanca tried to cancel the student production, first, by refusing to pay for expenses associated with a production. When money for the production was obtained from other sources, Zanca then claimed that the school could not pay overtime wages for more than five hours of rehearsal per week, despite sufficient funds.
Ultimately, the student production that year was canceled.
In the spring of 2013, Riccardo refused to give an unsatisfactory grade to a lesson taught by Hightower. Zanca allegedly yelled at Riccardo and accused him of “sabotaging her plan,” and called school security to have him removed from the building.
Subsequently, Zanca initiated two complaints against Riccardo with the DOE’s internal investigatory offices, but no charges were filled. In June 2013, Zanca gave Riccardo, Flanagan and Hightower annual performance ratings of “unsatisfactory.”
Allegations of Zanca’s discriminative behavior were brought to Mendez’s attention, but the DOE did not take any disciplinary actions, according to the complaint.
Hightower, Flanagan, James and Riccardo stopped working at the school the following that year.
The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages for the four.
Zanca is no longer the Pan American International High School principal. Juan Mendez is still listed as a Queens high school superintendent on the DOE website.
The DOE did not respond to a request for comment.