Racism accusations at Queens high school

July 3, 2013 2:41:45 PM PDT
It is a high school created for the children of immigrants; many students speak only Spanish when they arrive. The educators here, who spoke exclusively to Eyewitness News, say it requires a principal who is comfortable with racial diversity, but they say that is not the kind of principal they have now.

At the building that includes Pan American International High School in Queens, John Flanagan says he knew he was not his principal's favorite teacher.

"She had something against me, personally," he said.

The principal is Minerva Zanca, who took over the school last year. Educators call her intimidating, but they did not expect what they say they learned about Ms. Zanca after a teacher evaluation meeting in her office, where she had harsh criticism for John Flanagan.

Assistant principal Anthony Riccardo who was also at the meeting, recalled a statement she made about Flanagan.

"When he left the room, she turned to me and said, 'Did you see his big lips quiver?"

Mr. Riccardo wrote that account in an affidavit. Flanagan says he remembers the meeting very well.

"My mouth was moving around and I tried to keep still because I was very upset at what she was saying and when I read his statement, "that's how I knew that what she had against me," said Flanagan. "What I'm now coming to realize is that she had a racial bias."

But apparently there was more, also sworn to by Mr. Riccardo, and it concerned alleged words by the principal about teacher, Heather Hightower.

"One day I was actually walking down the hallway with Ms. Zanca and we're walking and we saw Heather and she said to me, 'Doesn't she look like a gorilla in a sweater?'"

"It was because of the color of my skin and the look of my hair," said Hightower. "She had issues with (me) for whatever reason."

According to Ms. Hightower, she had also received negative feedback from Principal Zanca.

"In April, she said, 'Well, you really haven't progressed at all as a teacher, I'm very disappointed and I'm going to give you a discontinuance.'"

Discontinuance means Ms. Hightower, who was not tenured, has been fired, and so has John Flanagan. We tried to speak to Ms. Zanca at her Queens home, we phoned and e-mailed the principal, but she was not available for comment about the allegations of making racist statements.

"Why is it OK for her to turn around and think because I'm white, that she can say that?" said Riccardo. "You cannot have that feeling; even flippantly have that feeling and be the leader of a school."

Riccardo says his own career is on the line because Ms. Zanca has recommended he be fired, after he filed the affidavit against her.

The Department of Education confirms it has launched an investigation.