‘Gorilla in a sweater’ – NYC reaches $1m settlement with racially abused black teachers

Francis Akhalbey Feb 4, 2020 at 09:30am

February 04, 2020 at 09:30 am | News

Francis Akhalbey

Francis Akhalbey | Staff Writer

February 04, 2020 at 09:30 am | News

Former principal Minerva Zanca racially discriminated and retaliated against former teachers of Pan American International High School

The city of New York has reached a $1 million settlement with three ex-employees of Pan American International High School after its former principal racially discriminated against them.

According to the New York Daily News, former principal Minerva Zanca, subjected the said employees to racial insults and retaliation during the 2012-13 school year. Per the accounts of three teachers and the former assistant principal, Zanca created a hostile working environment and was allegedly bent on forcing the black teachers out of the school with negative performance evaluations.

The settlement was reached after a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education (DOE) was filed by the Manhattan U.S. Attorney in 2016. The suit accused the DOE of allowing Zanca and Superintendent Juan Mendez to “discriminate against every black teacher” at the school as well as retaliate against the former assistant principal who called out the discrimination.

The former assistant principal, Anthony Riccardo, alleged that Zanca gave him a negative evaluation after he refused her request of giving low ratings to three teachers, the New York Daily News reports.

In one of the instances where he refused to comply, Zanca allegedly instructed security to escort him out of the school, accusing him of “sabotaging her plan.” Riccardo, who left the school in 2013 after the negative performance evaluation, received a $175,000 settlement.

The suit also alleged that Zanca made racially insensitive comments about the black teachers, Heather Hightower and John Flanagan to former assistant principal Riccardo. Among the racial insults included saying Hightower “looked like a gorilla in a sweater” and asking Riccardo if he had seen Flanagan’s “big lips quivering” during a meeting. She didn’t stop there, she further made reference to Hightower’s appearance claiming she could “never” have “f*cking nappy hair” like hers.

Hightower and Flanagan received $362,500 and $500,000 settlements respectively, the city law department revealed, according to the New York Daily News.

“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,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said when the suit was filed.

“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.”

Another aggrieved former teacher, Lisa-Erika James, however, opted not to settle and is scheduled to take her case to trial in February. The suit by the federal Justice Department is also still active. The feds are also seeking an order to prevent this scenario from reoccurring.

In a statement to the New York Daily News, a Law Department spokesman, while confirming the settlement, denied the allegations of discrimination.

“The Department of Education is committed to supporting people of all backgrounds. Based on our assessment, these teachers were not discriminated against. The parties have decided that ending this legal matter was in their best interests.”

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