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Members win discrimination suit

New York Teacher
Lisa-Erika James (left) addresses the press
Vitaliy Piltser

Lisa-Erika James (left) addresses the press in January about the discrimination that she and two other African American teachers at the Pan American International HS in Queens faced from their principal.

The New York City Department of Education has agreed to pay nearly $1.2 million to three African American teachers and an assistant principal to settle both a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the U.S. Attorney as well as individual lawsuits brought by the affected employees.

According to the complaint, the city DOE and Superintendent Juan Mendez violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlaws employment discrimination, in 2013 when they permitted Pan American International HS Principal Minerva Zanca to discriminate against the three teachers and to retaliate against the assistant principal who spoke out against the discrimination at the school in Elmhurst, Queens.

The DOE also agreed to provide all superintendents with training on the department’s anti-discrimination policies and procedures.

In announcing the settlement on April 29, Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, called the discrimination “invidious, unlawful and counter to our core values.” He said, “This office will remain vigilant in ensuring that employers who do not comply with Title VII are held to account.”

UFT Vice President for Academic HS Janella Hinds said, “The discrimination our teachers faced in this situation was unconscionable.”

Lisa-Erika James, one of the three teachers, has been seeking “accountability in the face of unchecked administrative racism” during what she describes as “the seven grueling years” it has taken to resolve the lawsuit. During that time, her colleagues and civil rights groups supported the victims with petitions and rallies.

According to the government’s complaint, Zanca, newly appointed as principal by Mendez in the 2012–13 school year, targeted untenured teachers John Flanagan and Heather Hightower with unsatisfactory lesson ratings and made derogatory racial comments about their appearances to Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo. The complaint also said Zanca discriminated against James, a tenured teacher, by making cuts to the successful theater program she supervised. The three were the school’s only African American teachers.

When Riccardo refused to rate a Hightower lesson unsatisfactory, Zanca had school security remove him from the building. According to testimony, she accused him of “sabotaging her plan.” Zanca then filed two complaints against Riccardo with the DOE’s internal investigatory offices, which found the charges unwarranted.

In June 2013, Zanca gave Flanagan, Hightower and Riccardo unsatisfactory annual performance ratings.

Despite complaints against Zanca, the DOE failed to take any action, even after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found probable cause for the charges. Zanca remained as principal for the following two years, but the four complainants left the school. James is now teaching at Talent Unlimited HS in Manhattan. The other two teachers and Riccardo have left the school system.