T.E. v. Pine Bush Central School District

T.E. v. Pine Bush Central School District

This civil rights case was brought by five current and former students of Pine Bush Central School District in Pine Bush, N.Y. All five students are Jewish and suffered anti-Semitic discrimination, harassment and bullying by other students for years, but unable to get school officials to take appropriate action to protect them. Despite numerous complaints by the students — two female and three male — and their parents, school officials and employees continually ignored, minimized or dismissed the anti-Semitic bullying and, in some instances, exacerbated it.

The lawsuit asserted that the school district, school board, superintendent and various school principals and assistant principals violated the students’ rights to an education free from national origin and/or religious discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the New York Civil Rights Law. In addition to damages for the students’ suffering, the suit sought a change in behavior from top to bottom through training and education programs aimed to stop anti-Semitic bullying and establish procedures for properly handling any future incidents.

Each of the plaintiffs was subjected to anti-Semitic slurs from other students, including “dirty, disgusting Jew,” “Christ killer,” “Jesus hater,” “Kike,” “Ashes,” and “Crispy” (the last two slurs being references to burning Jews during the Holocaust). They were also subjected to rampant anti-Semitic graffiti. For instance, students drew or engraved swastikas on books, notebooks, bathroom walls, hallway walls, desks, bleachers and playground equipment, sometimes with names of plaintiffs written inside. Students also drew and made images of Hasidic Jews from pipe cleaners, at which they tossed pennies. Others performed “Hitler salutes,” discussed celebrating Hitler’s birthday, and made anti-Semitic jokes about the Holocaust. Some plaintiffs were subjected to physical violence, including a severe beating of one student with a hockey stick, repeated slapping of another student in the head and attempts to force pennies into another student’s mouth.

The defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking to dismiss the claims filed by three of the five plaintiffs, arguing that they cannot establish as a matter of law that the school district acted with “deliberate indifference” in responding to their complaints of harassment. The United States filed a Statement of Interest in support of plaintiffs’ opposition to defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment. In a strongly worded, 76-page opinion, the district court denied the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment in all pertinent respects on November 4, 2014.

In June 2015, we negotiated a far-reaching and substantial settlement. Under the settlement, the school district paid $4.48 million and is overhauling its policies, procedures, training, education, and reporting relating to bullying, discrimination, and harassment. The district has instituted mandatory training and education for students and all district employees to improve tolerance and reduce anti-Semitic harassment and other bullying, led by the Anti-Defamation League. The district is also subject to monitoring for three years by both plaintiffs’ counsel and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The far-reaching reforms required under the settlement are a model for all school districts interested in protecting students from bullying. The court approved the settlement after a hearing on July 9, 2015.

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