Lawsuit Alleges Queens High School Principal ‘Ruthlessly Targeted’ Black Teachers with Racist Insults and Poor Performance Reviews

Minerva Zanca, the Queen's high school principal who allegedly discriminated against Black teachers at her school. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.

Minerva Zanca, the Queen’s high school principal who allegedly discriminated against Black teachers at her school. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.

A bombshell lawsuit, released Thursday, reveals the appalling discriminatory behavior of a Queens high school principal toward African-American teachers.

The lawsuit, filed by Manhattan’s U.S. Attorney’s office, accuses Minerva Zanca of purposely discriminating against “every Black teacher” at the Pan American International High School in Queens, New York. According to a 2013 article published by WNYC, the school opened not too long ago and mainly serves new immigrant students who are not yet fluent in English. An overwhelming majority of its student population is Latino.

The Department of Education launched an investigation into Zanca back in 2013 after receiving complaints that she made racially disparaging comments about two Black teachers. In addition to the racist remarks, the new lawsuit alleges Zanca gave the teachers poor performance reviews, even before she observed their lessons.

Per WNYC, John Flanagan and Heather Hightower filed complaints to the DOE’s Office of Equal Opportunity because they felt their unsatisfactory performance reviews were racially motivated. Flanagan is a ESOL science teacher at the school while Hightower teaches Spanish. Both were up for tenure in 2013, the news site reports

Many of Zanca’s racist comments were reportedly made to Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo. According to WNYC, Riccardo’s witness statement accuses the principal of “ruthlessly targeting” Flanagan and Hightower. In one instance, following an observation of Hightower’s class, Riccardo recalls Zanca saying the Spanish teacher looked like a “gorilla in a sweater.” The New York Daily News reports that on another occasion, the principal remarked that she could never have “f-cking nappy hair” like Hightower.

Zanca’s racially insensitive insults didn’t sop there though.

Following a meeting with Flanagan, Zanca reportedly asked Riccardo, “did you see his big lips quivering?” The principal also stated that she couldn’t refrain from laughing at Flanagan because “he reminded her of a Tropicana commercial where a black man ‘with those same lips’ danced down a supermarket aisle,” the New York Daily News reports.

“Those are things that nobody should be speaking, let alone a principal of a school,” Riccardo told WNYC in a phone interview.

According to the New York Daily News, Zanca blackballed Riccardo after he stood up to her and refused to give Hightower a poor performance rating. The lawsuit states that the principal yelled at Riccardo and accused him of “sabotaging her plan.” The vice principal was then removed from school premises by security guards. Per the suit, Zanca followed up with two complaints against Riccardo – complaints the DOE found to have no merit.

Zanca was also accused of discriminating against a tenured teacher named Lisa-Erika James. According to the news site, the principal reportedly cut James’ “highly successful” theater program, claiming there wasn’t enough money to fund it. James has since left the school to teach somewhere else.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office asserts that Superintendent Juan Mendez was well aware of complaints concerning Zanca’s “discrimination and retaliation,” but took no action to discipline her.

“Even after the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause to believe that the DOE had discriminated and retaliated against James, Riccardo, and Hightower, Principal Zanca was allowed to remain in charge of Pan American,” Bharara’s office said.

Per the New York Daily News, Hightower, Flanagan, James, and Riccardo left Pan American after the 2012-2013 school year. Zanca no longer works at the school either.

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