Teachers Accuse Queens Principal of Racist Comments

By Katie Honan on July 8, 2013 10:22am 

 
	John Flanagan, Heather Hightower and Lisa-Erika James (L-R) say their principal targeted them because of their race.
John Flanagan, Heather Hightower and Lisa-Erika James (L-R) say their principal targeted them because of their race.
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BK Nation/Kevin Powell

ELMHURST — The principal of a Queens high school is being accused of making racist comments about two teachers before firing them.

Two teachers at Pan American International High School in Elmhurst filed a discrimination claim last month with the Department of Education's Office of Equal Opportunity against Minerva Zanca, saying they were targeted because of their race.

A rally is planned in front of Chancellor Dennis Walcott's office, at 52 Chambers St., on Monday at noon to protest the alleged discrimination.

John Flanagan and Heather Hightower said they were denied tenure this past school year by Zanca after facing a year of harassment and unfair observations, according to the discrimination claim filed on June 24.

They were also both given unsatisfactory ratings and fired at the end of the year.

In June, the school’s assistant principal, Anthony Riccardo, gave a written statement to the Office of Equal Opportunity, shared with DNAinfo New York, also claiming Zanca made racist comments about Hightower and Flanagan after observing them in the classroom.

Riccardo alleged Zanca, who became principal last September, said Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater with nappy hair.”

When referencing Flanagan, who has spent five years in the city school system, she allegedly asked, “Did you see his big lips quivering?”

A third employee to file a discrimination claim, theater teacher Lisa-Erika James, said she was targeted through cuts to her program, which had doubled in size since it started and was featured in a national teacher magazine in March.

In addition to the racial allegations, Riccardo’s letter claims that Zanca determined that a teacher would receive an “unsatisfactory” rating before even stepping into the classroom — telling him the “magic number” to get a teacher out is four unsatisfactory ratings, he alleged.

Flanagan, 29, taught Spanish and native language arts at the school, which teaches immigrant students who've been in the country less than four years.

He told DNAinfo New York he and the other teachers who’ve filed complaints are being “ignored by the people we really need to hear back from.”

The DOE has not responded to requests for comment by DNAinfo New York. They told WNYC’s Schoolbook that they are investigating.

“We really just want them to hold the principal accountable for her actions,” Flanagan said.

He said the important thing for him is getting his record cleared so he can move on to another school.

“This woman's evaluation of us was opinion based, and without merit, and completely unfair,” he said.

James, a 10-year veteran who was not fired, decided to leave on her own. She said the decision was “heart wrenching” but had to be done.

“These are all racially-motivated,” she said. "[Zanca] was especially aggressive with the three of us, and the work environment had become increasingly more hostile.”

In addition to the formal complaints, a letter written by other faculty members on June 14 claimed that there has been high staff turnover since Zanca became principal, as well as cuts made to programs “crucial for our students’ and children’s development of English.”

The student body at Pan American International School serves immigrant students who've been in the country less than four years.

The letter states that various faculty members have mentioned a hostile work environment, and are often “punished, humiliated or belittled in front of their colleagues.”

Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras sent a letter to Walcott urging him to investigate, saying the allegations are “disturbing.”

“I have zero tolerance for racial discrimination, especially from someone who is supposed to be a steward of the values we cherish,” she wrote.

Hightower and Zanca could not be reached for comment.

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