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Press Release

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Sues New York City Department Of Education For Discrimination And Retaliation At Pan American International High School

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of New York
Lawsuit Alleges That the Department Discriminated Against Black Teachers Who Worked at the School and Retaliated Against an Assistant Principal Who Spoke Out Against the Discrimination

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today that the United States has filed a lawsuit against the NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION (the “DOE”) for engaging in a pattern and practice of discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII.  The Government alleges that during the 2012-2013 school year, the DOE permitted Principal Minerva Zanca and Superintendent Juan Mendez to discriminate against every black teacher at Pan American International High School (“Pan American”) and retaliate against an assistant principal who spoke out against the discrimination.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “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.  Yet that is what we allege happened at Pan American International High School.  Federal civil rights laws prohibit this misconduct.  This suit seeks to remedy the violations that occurred at Pan American and ensure that the New York City Department of Education protects its employees’ civil rights in the future.”

As alleged in the Complaint filed in Manhattan federal court:

In August 2012, Superintendent Mendez selected Minerva Zanca as Pan American’s new principal.  During the 2012-2013 school year, Pan American employed 27 teachers, three of whom were black.  Throughout that school year, Principal Zanca purposely targeted John Flanagan and Heather Hightower, two untenured black teachers, for unsatisfactory lesson ratings. According to Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo, Principal Zanca decided to give Mr. Flanagan and Ms. Hightower unsatisfactory ratings before she had seen the lesson she was supposed to evaluate.

In connection with her reviews of Mr. Flanagan and Ms. Hightower, Principal Zanca made derogatory racial comments to Assistant Principal Riccardo.  Specifically, Principal Zanca stated that Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater,” asked whether Assistant Principal Riccardo had seen Flanagan’s “big lips quivering” during a meeting, complained that she could “never” have “fucking nappy hair” like Hightower, and stated that she had difficulty not laughing at Flanagan because he reminded her of a Tropicana commercial where a black man “with those same lips” danced down a supermarket aisle.

Principal Zanca also discriminated against Lisa-Erika James, a tenured black teacher, by cutting the highly successful theater program Ms. James oversaw.  On multiple occasions during the 2012-2013 school year, Principal Zanca attempted to cancel student productions.  First, she refused to pay for expenses associated with a production.  When money for the production was obtained from other sources, Principal Zanca then claimed that the school could not pay overtime wages for more than five hours of rehearsal per week.  Pan American in fact had sufficient money to pay for more rehearsal, and Principal Zanca simply reallocated that money to other projects.  Ultimately, the second student production of the 2012-2013 school year was cancelled.

During the spring of 2013, when Assistant Principal Riccardo refused to give an unsatisfactory rating to a lesson taught by Ms. Hightower, Principal Zanca yelled at Assistant Principal Riccardo, accused him of “sabotaging her plan,” and called school security to have him removed from the building.  Subsequently, Principal Zanca initiated two complaints against Assistant Principal Riccardo with the DOE’s internal investigatory offices.  Those offices determined that Principal Zanca’s allegations did not warrant any charges against Assistant Principal Riccardo.  In June of 2013, Principal Zanca gave Assistant Principal Riccardo, Mr. Flanagan, and Ms. Hightower annual performance ratings of “unsatisfactory.”

The allegations that Principal Zanca engaged in discrimination and retaliation were brought to the attention of Superintendent Mendez, but the DOE did not take any disciplinary action against Principal Zanca.  Even after the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause to believe that the DOE had discriminated and retaliated against James, Riccardo, and Hightower, Principal Zanca was allowed to remain in charge of Pan American.  Neither Ms. Hightower, Mr. Flanagan, Ms. James, nor Mr. Riccardo worked at Pan American after the 2012-2013 school year.

Title VII authorizes the Department of Justice to commence an action in the United States District Court against the DOE to remedy discrimination and retaliation for opposing discrimination.  The Complaint seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as compensatory damages on behalf of Mr. Flanagan, Ms. James, Ms. Hightower, and Assistant Principal Riccardo.

In October of 2013, Mr. Flanagan filed a lawsuit against the DOE, Principal Zanca, Superintendent Mendez, and others.  That suit was docketed as Flanagan v. N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ. et al., No. 13 Civ. 8456.  On August 21, 2015, Magistrate Judge James C. Francis IV recommended the denial of Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Mr. Flanagan’s Title VII claims for discrimination and retaliation.  The DOE has not objected to Judge Francis’s recommendation, and the deadline for doing so has expired.  The United States anticipates moving to intervene in Flanagan and to consolidate that case with its own.

The case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Caleb Hayes-Deats is in charge of the case.

Updated June 9, 2016

Civil Rights
Press Release Number: 16-156