Law & Courts

U.S. Attorney Sues NYC Schools, Saying Principal Discriminated Against Black Teachers

By Madeline Will — June 13, 2016 3 min read
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The federal government sued the New York City Department of Education on Thursday for allegedly allowing systemic discrimination and racism against black teachers at a high school in Queens.

During the 2012-13 school year, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York alleges, the former principal of Pan American International High School discriminated against the school’s three black teachers and retaliated against an assistant principal who spoke out against what was happening.

“It is nearly unthinkable that, in this day and age, one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the United States would allow racial discrimination and retaliation to flourish,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

The principal, Minerva Zanca, allegedly made racist comments to the assistant principal, Anthony Riccardo, about two untenured black teachers—comparing one to a “gorilla in a sweater” with “nappy hair” and mocking the other’s “big lips.” Zanca also gave the teachers unsatisfactory lesson ratings before she even saw the lessons she was supposed to evaluate, according to Riccardo.

Zanca also discriminated against a tenured black teacher, Lisa-Erika James, by targeting the successful theater program that James oversaw, according to the complaint. Zanca repeatedly tried to cancel student productions, the complaint said.

When Riccardo refused to give an unsatisfactory rating to a lesson taught by one of the untenured black teachers, Zanca allegedly yelled at Riccardo, accusing him of “sabotaging her plan” and calling school security to have him removed from the building. She also filed two complaints against Riccardo with the NYC Department of Education’s internal investigatory offices, which did not charge Riccardo.

At the end of the year, Zanca gave Riccardo and the two untenured black teachers unsatisfactory annual performance reviews—no other untenured teacher at the school received an unsatisfactory rating that year. Zanca also refused to offer James a position as a teacher in the school’s summer program.

After the 2012-13 school year, Riccardo resigned, and the three black teachers left Pan American. According to the Washington Post, the two untenured teachers were fired due to their unsatisfactory rating, while James, the theater teacher who was tenured, remains employed by the district. They all filed complaints with the department.

But according to the lawsuit, the NYC High Schools Superintendent Juan Mendez denied the allegations against Zanca and said she “deserves our support.” The department for New York City schools did not take any disciplinary action against Zanca.

But the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause to believe that the department had discriminated and retaliated against Riccardo and two of the black teachers. The office referred the charges to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is seeking compensatory damages on behalf of the three teachers and Riccardo.

Zanca retired last year as principal and now works at a Brooklyn public school as a part-time guidance counselor. She told the Washington Post that the allegations were false. “I did not make those reprehensible and disgusting comments, and I’m outraged that they were attributed to me,” she said.

Still, according to the N.Y. Daily News, community leaders, including officials from the New York City Parents Union, are now calling for Zanca to be fired from her post as guidance counselor.

Devora Kaye, a NYC Department of Education spokeswoman, told the Associated Press in an email: “All employees’ work environments must be safe and supportive, and we have zero tolerance for any discrimination.”

This lawsuit comes during a time of heightened scrutiny at how teachers of color are treated among a mostly-white teaching corps. My colleague Evie Blad reported earlier this month that the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights has been particularly aggressive during Obama’s presidency identifying and rooting out unfair and discriminatory treatment in public schools.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.