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Two Demoted Educators Sue NYC Department of Education, Claim Pattern of Discrimination Included Being Ordered to Make ‘Wakanda Forever’ Salute

Two educators from the Bronx have filed lawsuits against the New York City Department of Education, alleging they were wrongfully terminated and then reinstated at lower levels, each after refusing to make the “Wakanda Forever” salute at superintendent meetings.

Rafaela Espinal, a Dominican-American woman, claims in court filings she was abruptly fired from her job as a head of Community School District 12 in the Bronx in August 2018 without any reason given.

Karen Ames, a 30-year Department of Education employee, also claims she was fired without warning in August 2018 and notified the department was “moving in a new direction.”

Both women say they were terminated as the culmination of a months-long campaign of gender, race, and age discrimination marked by a pattern of actions that included being “admonished” for refusing to participate in the cross-arm salute featured in the 2018 film “Black Panther.” At official gatherings of high-level Department of Education employees, then-Bronx superintendent Meisha Ross Porter asked the group to make the salute regularly.

Rafaela Espinal (far right), said she was wrongfully terminated after refusing to do the “Wakanda” salute. (Photo: Krista Johnson/ YouTube screenshot)

Espinal filed a Manhattan Supreme Court suit against the city’s Department of Education’s top officials, alleging she was “admonished” and told it was “inappropriate for her not to participate” in the salute by Porter, court filings show.

In the $30 million legal claim filed by Espinal on Feb. 3, the educator claims she was told she “wasn’t black enough,” and that she should “just learn to be quiet and look pretty.”

Espinal, who recently earned her doctorate, said she was fired when she was just one year away from her lifetime DOE pension after repeatedly refusing to make the salute at superintendent meetings. Her lawyers allege she refused the salute because the gesture “introduced a racial divide where there should be none.” The lawyers also said the gesture was “corrupted” because people were being forced to do it.

She later accepted a demotion in lieu of termination in order to keep her benefits and worked as a school investigator, a job that required only a high school diploma.

Karen Ames filed a $150 million lawsuit against the DOE in the Manhattan Supreme Court Friday, alleging she was ousted from her position as District 8 superintendent and that her Jewish heritage and age didn’t match up with the department’s “equity” agenda.

Ames claims in the suit that Chancellor Richard Carranza targeted her over ethnic background through his “Disrupt and Dismantle” campaign.

“The agenda of Chancellor Carranza and his senior leadership team was euphemistically touted as an ‘equity platform’ but in reality, it was a platform used to create gender, age, racial and ethnic divisions in the NYC School system,” the suit says, the New York Post reports.

Ames said she was “admonished” after refusing to make the salute at superintendent meetings. She also said she was chastised by a colleague at a training session after brining up her grandparents’ experience during the Holocaust, and told, “That is not about being Jewish! It’s about black and brown boys of color only,” according to court documents.

“You better check yourself,” the colleague, Rasheda Amon allegedly told her.

Ames was summoned to the DOE headquarters in August 2018 and given a termination letter. After pleading to keep her employment and benefits, Ames was given 24 hours to make a decision between accepting a demotion or being removed from payroll. She took the demotion, was assigned to the Office of School work, but ultimately took a job in another state after being given no work in six months.

“This case highlights that those in power often put their own agendas before the well-being of our community. It’s a terrible example for our children to be taught to judge people on anything other than merit,” Ames’ attorney Israel Goldberg said. Goldberg is also representing Espinal.

A spokesperson for the DOE said “committed to fostering a safe, inclusive work environment and strongly dispute any claims of discrimination or improper treatment.” 

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