The former principal of a Bronx middle school is facing off with four teachers in a bitter legal battle stemming from allegations the administrator barred her staff from teaching Black history.
The city’s Education Department launched a probe into Intermediate School 224 Principal Patricia Catania last year amid claims that she prohibited an English teacher from teaching lessons on the Harlem Renaissance, The New York Daily News reported. The teacher, Mercedes Liriano, blasted her then boss as a “racist” who was trying to stifle students’ education.
“She’s attempting to stop students from learning about their own history, and she’s denying them the right to learn about where they came from,” Liriano told the outlet at the time.
Their row only escalated from there with Catania suing Liriano, two other Black teachers and two teacher’s union employees, claiming they waged a “maligning, malevolent, and racist campaign” to remove her as principal.
“Calling me a racist is not unlike calling Mahatma Gandhi a violent man — there are just no facts to support the charge,” Catania argued in a sworn declaration filed in Bronx Supreme Court earlier this year and first reported by the Daily News. “I was well known to be the exact opposite of the grossly misapplied ‘racist’ label.’ “
“However, none of this mattered to my cancellers,” she added. “They decided I had to go, and that was that.”
In her complaint, the former principal denies cracking down on the Black History Month curricula and says Liriano, who she says had an “extensive disciplinary history,” was reprimanded for trying to teach without a lesson plan.
“I advised her that she simply needed an adequate lesson plan if she was going to teach this subject, which she didn’t have,” Catania continued. “In response to my benign and wholly proper suggestions, and to my cordial reminders of her professional and contractual obligations, Ms. Liriano immediately went on a loud tirade throughout the hallway and main office of the school, screaming words to the effect that I couldn’t tell her she could not teach Black History.”
She claims Liriano’s outburst was enough for the United Federation of Teachers to begin orchestrating her ouster. Her lawyer, Anthony Gentile, alleges a group of “thuggish goons” from the union rushed the school and congregated outside Catania’s office “in a threatening manner.”
Gentile adds the smear campaign against his client was itself racist because the teachers hoped to replace her with a principal of “African or Caribbean” heritage.
According to the Daily News, the teachers have hit back with a complaint of their own filed in Manhattan Federal Court on Monday. The $8 million suit accuses Catania of targeting them because of their race. She allegedly made work so unbearable that two of them quit.
“It’s been devastating,” said lawyer Jeanne Mirer, who’s representing the teachers. “They devoted many years of their lives to teaching.”
Catania, who’s white, took over the middle school in December 2016, and employees say she created a “hostile environment” by singling out Black students and teachers. She reportedly once said that Black teachers lack the knowledge required for their subjects and are better suited to control classrooms, the lawsuit states.
In June the NYC Department of Education allowed Catania to leave her top post at the Bronx school, where the student body is predominately Black and Latino, for an assistant principal position at another school nearby.
“The UFT will always fight for the rights of students and educators. We will address this baseless lawsuit — and its melodramatic claims — in court, not in the press,” a union spokesperson said in a statement.