Minerva Zanca

New York City’s Department of Education is facing a federal lawsuit after the U.S. Department of Justice accused the body of allowing a Queens, N.Y., high school principal to “discriminate against every black teacher” at the school, a press release from the DOJ notes.

The lawsuit claims that Pan American International High School Principal Minerva Zanca, who was hired by Superintendent of Schools Juan Mendez, used racist language while commenting on two untenured black teachers. According to the DOJ, Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo also said that Zanca gave both teachers poor reviews even before seeing the lessons she was meant to evaluate.


Zanca allegedly told Riccardo that one teacher, Heather Highwater, “looked like a gorilla in a sweater.” She is also accused of asking Riccardo if he had seen teacher John Flanagan’s “big lips quivering” during a meeting.

She also allegedly made comments about Highwater’s hair,  saying that she could never have “[f—king] nappy hair.”

Another black teacher, who was tenured, was not spared from Zanca’s discrimination, the DOJ charges. The lawsuit says that Zanca cut “the highly successful theater program” that Lisa-Erika James ran, which ultimately meant the cancellation of a student production in the 2012-2013 school year.

When Riccardo called Zanca out for her discriminatory actions, Zanca allegedly responded by having him removed from the school by security, according to the lawsuit, and accusing Riccardo of “sabotaging her plan.”


Zanca then filed two complaints against Riccardo with the Department of Education’s internal investigatory offices; however, it was determined that the allegations Zanca filed did not warrant charges.

Despite all the complaints and allegations brought to the attention of Mendez at the Department of Education, BuzzFeed notes, the department did not take any disciplinary action, and Zanca was allowed to remain in charge of the school even after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that the Department of Education had discriminated and lashed out against the only three black teachers at the high school between 2012 and 2013. None of the three teachers returned to the school after the 2012-2013 school year.


“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 announcing the lawsuit. “Yet that is what we allege happened at Pan American International High School. Federal civil rights laws prohibit this misconduct.”


Read the full press release here

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