WEEK IN REVIEW : Feds allege Title VII racial discrimination at Queens school in violation of the Civil Rights Act


Caleb Hayes-Deats, an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the office of the U.S. Attorney's Office for New York's southern district, has filed a Federal civil rights lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education, alleging a pattern and practise of racial discrimination at Pan American International High School in Elmhurst, Queens.

The lawsuit is notable, in part, because the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, did not join in the filing of the complaint, unlike with the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office against Glenwood Management Corporation, in which the real estate developer was accused of discrimination stemming from alleged Fair Housing Act violations.

In both cases, the civil court complaints alleging discrimination were both filed by Federal prosecutors from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, despite the fact that municipal laws exist in New York City against the kinds of discrimination alleged in each complaint.

In the complaint filed on Thursday against the Department of Education, Federal prosecutors alleged that the discrimination took place during the 2012-2013 school year and that the school principal at the time, Minerva Zanca, discriminated against three Black teachers, John Flanagan, Heather Hightower, and Lisa-Erika James. Principal Zanca allegedly complained about the physical traits of some of the Black teachers, comparing one teacher to a gorilla and, of another, complaining about her "fucking nappy hair," according to allegations in the complaint.

After Assistant Principal Anthony Riccardo refused to go along with Principal Zanca's discrimination, which allegedly included deliberately providing unsatisfactory ratings to the teachers without merit, the principal allegedly retaliated against the assistant principal, according to the complaint. After departmental complaints were lodged by the three Black teachers against Principal Zanca, School Superintendent Juan Mendez, who appointed Ms. Zanca to the post of school principal, defended the school principal against the charges of discrimination, according to the complaint, even though news media had begun to report about the complaints of racial discrimination at the school.

Neither of the assistant principal nor the three Black teachers remained at Pan American International High School after the 2012-2013 year, according to the complaint. However, Principal Zanca remained in her post, overseeing the school for two additional school years, according to the complaint. Damningly, Superintendent Mendez, who defended the alleged discriminatory actions of Principal Zanca, remains in his post, according to the complaint.

Discrimination at Queens public schools can, in part, be traced back to a culture in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights that opposed school integration, even in the face of the civil rights movement in the 1960's, as documented in a 1964 front page report published by The New York Times. Advocacy groups at that time then, such as the Jackson Heights Parents and Taxpayers Association, acted to oppose school integration under the guise of neighborhood preservation.

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