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Posted under: News

Former Employees Who Accused A Principal Of Comparing A Black Teacher To A 'Gorilla In A Sweater' Receive More Than $1 Million In Settlements

The Department of Education said despite the settlements, none of the educators were discriminated against.

New York City is being forced to pay three Black former employees at a local school after the teachers said they were discriminated against by the principal.

The three educators who were working at Pan American International High School in Queens at the time claimed principal Minerva Zanca intentionally ousted them with falsely drafted negative performance evaluations, according to the Daily News.

The federal Justice Department filed a lawsuit back in 2016 alleging that the city's education department allowed a "pattern and practice of discrimination" during the 2012-2013 school year. 

Zanca allegedly made racially insensitive comments to former assistant principal Anthony Riccardo about Heather Hightower and John Flanagan, two of the teachers listed in the lawsuit. She reportedly said she could "never" have nappy hair like Hightower and asked Riccardo if he saw Flanagan's "big lips quivering" during a meeting, according to court documents. 

According to The New York Times, Zanca said one of the teachers "looked like a gorilla in a sweater." The lawsuit also states that Zanca told Riccardo that she couldn't stop herself from laughing at a teacher "because he reminded her of a Tropicana commercial where a Black man 'with those same lips' danced down a supermarket aisle."

The teachers said that Zanca was determined to "force out" Black teachers at the school, reports the Times. Riccardo supports those claims, saying he was pressured to give the teachers low ratings on their evaluations. When he declined to falsely report their performance reviews, he received a negative evaluation from Zanca. She reportedly yelled at Riccardo and accused him of "sabotaging her plan" and later had security remove him from the school building.

Riccardo received a $175,000 settlement upon leaving the school in 2013.

Flanagan and Hightower left after the 2012-2013 school year. Hightower subsequently received a $362,500 settlement, and Flanagan received $500,000. Lisa-Erika James, the third teacher in the lawsuit, has not yet settled with the city and plans to take her case to trial this month.

Despite the federal Justice Department seeking an order against New York City to prevent future discriminative encounters, a law department spokesperson said, “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.”

When contacted by the Times back in 2016, Zanca said “These are false allegations, horrible allegations. I deny them. I’m outraged that this would even be attributed to me.”

She said being a minority herself being born to Puerto Rican parents, she “would never tolerate this; it’s a social injustice to judge people based on their race.”

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