- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - A U.S. attorney sued the New York City Department of Education Thursday, saying it violated federal discrimination laws by letting a Queens high school discriminate against black teachers.

The lawsuit in Manhattan federal court sought to force the city to take steps to prevent future discrimination and pay “sufficient damages” to any discrimination victims.

It said the discrimination occurred against three black teachers among 27 teachers employed during the 2012-2013 school year at Pan American International High School in the Elmhurst section of Queens.

According to the lawsuit, the school’s principal at the time, Minerva Zanca, made derogatory racial comments to an assistant principal about the teachers. She allegedly said one “looked like a gorilla in a sweater” and made racist remarks about teachers’ lips and hair. She remained at the school through the 2014-2015 school year and no disciplinary action was taken against her, the lawsuit said.

The city’s law department said it was reviewing the lawsuit. In the suit, which joined a lawsuit filed earlier, Zanca is represented by lawyers for the city. According to court papers, a magistrate judge wrote last year that Zanca denied the allegations. No one answered a phone Thursday listed for a Minerva Zanca in New York City and other contacts for her were not immediately available.

Devora Kaye, a Department of Education spokeswoman, said in an email: “All employees’ work environments must be safe and supportive, and we have zero tolerance for any discrimination.”

In a release, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said it was “nearly unthinkable that, in this day and age, one of the largest and most diverse school districts in the United States would allow racial discrimination and retaliation to flourish.”

The Department of Education oversees about 1,800 schools attended by 1.1 million students. It has nearly 135,000 full-time employees, the government said.

Prosecutors said in the lawsuit that a schools superintendent selected a principal in August 2012 who purposely targeted two untenured black teachers for unsatisfactory lesson ratings, grading them before she had seen the lesson she was supposed to evaluate. They said the principal also discriminated against a tenured black teacher by cutting a highly successful theater program that she oversaw and by attempting to cancel student productions throughout the school year.

In spring 2013, Zanca ordered security to remove from the building an assistant principal who refused to give an unsatisfactory rating to a lesson taught by one of the teachers, the lawsuit said. It said she accused him of “sabotaging her plan.”

The lawsuit sought damages for alleged retaliation that occurred against the assistant principal, who said Zanca had told him in the fall of 2012 that the best method to force a teacher out of a school was to give multiple unsatisfactory ratings following lesson reviews.

Even after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause to believe the Department of Education had discriminated and retaliated against the assistant principal and two of the teachers, Zanca was permitted to remain in charge, the lawsuit said.

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