This story was originally published on Feb. 4, 2020 by THE CITY.
A federal case alleging repeated discrimination at a Queens high school heads to trial Wednesday — with the one teacher remaining in the suit vowing to expose “systemic racism.”
Lisa-Erika James, a former theater teacher at Elmhurst’s Pan American International High School, is the last person standing of an original quartet of educators who were part of the 2016 federal suit against a former principal and the city Department of Education.
The other three staffers all settled with the city for hundreds of thousands of dollars late last month.
James told THE CITY that ongoing her legal battle in Manhattan Federal Court represents a quest for accountability.
“With the accountability needs to come an actionable plan to prevent this from happening to other teachers who love to teach and work with young people — especially young people of color and marginalized communities,” James said Tuesday.
“I’m concerned obviously with the fact that in 2020 I’m still even having to fight against systemic racism in the public school system,” she added.
Allegations of Ugly Racism
During the 2012-2013 school year, Pan American HS had three black teachers among its total staff of 27: James, John Flanagan and Heather Hightower. According to the latest data from the city, the school’s student body is 98.4% Hispanic.
The trio of teachers, joined by Anthony Riccardo, the school’s assistant principal, claim the DOE enabled then-principal Minerva Zanca to discriminate against them. They also contend she retaliated against Riccardo, court documents read.
Zanca allegedly repeatedly talked about the size of Flanagan’s lips, and said Hightower had “f—ing nappy hair” and looked like a “gorilla in a sweater.”
She canceled two of James’ theater productions because of false claims about budget reductions and accused her of misrepresenting overtime hours, the lawsuit claims.
Zanca gave Hightower and Flanagan — both untenured — numerous negative performance ratings. When Riccardo pushed back, she had him escorted from the building and filed two formal complaints with DOE against him, the complaint reads.
Zanca could not use the unsatisfactory ratings against James since she was a tenured teacher.
James alleges that Zanca created an “intolerable work environment” — and made “concerted efforts” to smear her reputation and sabotage her theater program, court documents read.
None of the four educators continued on at Pan American following that school year.
City Mounting Defense
The discrimination claims eventually prompted then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to sue the city Department of Education in 2016. The case will finally be heard by a jury Wednesday.
The city’s Law Department will be representing the DOE and Zanca at trial. Nicholas Paolucci, a department spokesperson, said the city will “defend this principal who did not discriminate.”
“She made sound pedagogical decisions,” Paolucci added.
James said she feels “really prepared” for the first day in court, adding that it would be “interesting” to be in the same room with Zanca again.
Flanagan, Hightower, and Riccardo settled with the DOE, receiving payments of $500,000, $362,500, and $175,000, respectively, according to the Law Department.
The settlements do not represent an admission of wrongdoing but were meant to close protracted and costly litigation, the Law Department noted.
James’ attorney, Erica Shnayder, said the city had taken an “unreasonable position” on reaching a potential settlement with her client. She added while a deal was still possible, it did not appear likely.
Flanagan 35, changed the course of his career following his exit from Pan American and is now pursuing a doctorate in Spanish linguistics at CUNY. He declined to discuss his settlement, saying only that he was “interested in moving forwards.”
“It is what it is,” he added.
Riccardo and Hightower could not be reached for comment.
Peter Lamphere, a former colleague of the teachers, called their treatment “egregious discrimination.”
He said the DOE’s lack of action “highlights the need for greater accountability for principals and superintendents in order to stop harassment and abuse of educators and the poisoning of the educational environment in our schools with racism.”
James said that reaching this point has been an “eviscerating process” involving reliving traumatic experiences, but that she’s found the courage to try to right a wrong.
“There was a grave injustice done to us and I am a believer in justice,” James said.
“So when I feel I have been treated unfairly, then I feel like it’s my responsibility to say something.”