Alleged racist comments by an Elmhurst principal have left three teachers without jobs, with one deciding to leave the education system for good.
Lisa-Erika James, a tenured theater teacher, Heather Hightower, an ESL-science teacher, and John Flanagan, a Spanish teacher from Pan American International High School have filed a discrimination claim with the Department of Education (DOE)’s Office of Equal Opportunity against Principal Minerva Zanca.
According to details released by Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo — who is also filing a harassment claim against Zanca — the principal allegedly referred to Hightower as looking like a “gorilla in a sweater” and having “nappy hair” and said Flanagan had “big lips” during post-observation conferences this past school year.
Riccardo also said that in various cases, Zanca insisted on giving both teachers unsatisfactory grades before observing class lessons.
“This whole experience has made me question whether or not I want to stay in a system that is designed to treat people with such malicious intent,” said Riccardo. “I am completely sickened by the unethical behavior my fellow colleague has displayed and I believe this to be a truly sad time to be an administrator in a NYC public school.”
According to Flanagan’s complaint, while there are eight untenured teachers out of a total of 27, both he and Hightower are the only African American untenured teachers. The complaint also states Flanagan and Hightower were the only ones that Zanca did not recommended for tenure.
“Just how you [the DOE] are very critical with teachers in New York City, you have to be with administrators,” said Kevin Powell, president of BK Nation, a non-profit organization that is working with the teachers on this case. “No form of discrimination should be allowed. They’re not activists — they’re teachers. They didn’t want to be in this. They had to say something.”
According to Powell, Hightower has decided to completely leave teaching and will pursue another career path.
“The most egregious act is that [Zanca] is allowed to run a school where many of the children are of Afro-Latino descent,” James said in her complaint. “And her hurtful racial epithets have been thrown around with no recourse or consequences.”
James said she was hired to create a theater program for the high school by former principal Marcella Barros, but alleges the program was then cut by Zanca because she is African American.
“It is abundantly clear that Mrs. Zanca has done everything in her power to get rid of every African American teacher on this staff,” said James.
The teachers, along with Powell and other supporters, rallied in front of the DOE on July 8 to call for authorities to investigate the case. A petition on www.change.org to fire Zanca had gathered 1,332 signatures as of press time.
Zanca could not be reached and it was unclear as of press time whether she had acquired legal representation.
The DOE said the complaints are under investigation.