Pine Bush School District in Upstate New York will be paying $4.48 million and will establish far-reaching reforms in training of teachers and curriculum as a result of a lawsuit by five current and former Jewish students who claimed they had been victims of anti-Semitism in the district’s schools.
Benjamin Weiser, reporting for The New York Times, writes that the lawsuit filed in 2012 accused officials of the Pine Bush School District of not taking action to protect Jewish students from bullying, slurs, and other intimidation.
Students reported finding swastikas drawn on walls, epithets and demeaning nicknames being used, and being shoved and beaten. Students also described bus rides during which “white power” chants and Nazi salutes were led by classmates.
The deal, which still has to be approved by Judge Kenneth M. Karas, was made just two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial in the US District Court in White Plains.
“Anti-Semitic harassment is wrong,” the school district and the plaintiffs said in a joint statement posted on Monday on the Pine Bush website. “The district will never condone anti-Semitic slurs or graffiti, Holocaust ‘jokes’ or physical violence. No family should have to experience the hurt and pain that bullying and name-calling can cause children to endure because of their religious, national or cultural identity.”
The district does not, however, admit to fault in the settlement. But the 2012 lawsuit blamed school officials of “deliberate indifference” which resulted in the persistence of anti-Semitic harassment across grade levels in three schools in the district. Because of this, the charges explained, students suffered depression, became withdrawn, and experienced a decrease in academic success.
The lawsuit cited an email sent in 2011 from then Superintendent Philip G. Steinberg, who is Jewish, responding to a parent’s complaint about her daughter’s and a friend’s harassment.
“I have said I will meet with your daughters and I will,” Mr. Steinberg wrote, “but your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.”
Steinberg also said in an interview at the time that the lawsuit was a “money grab” and that some of the plaintiffs had “embellished” their claims.
Nevertheless, one reported harassment described a bully holding a student down on the floor and stuffing coins down the student’s throat while calling him a “dirty Jew”, according to Paul Bland of the Huffington Post. One parent was asked by the former Pine Bush superintendent: “If you want your kids to hang out with more Jewish children or have more tolerance, why would you pick a community like Pine Bush?”
Paul Bland’s public interest law firm took the case, and the district denied any responsibility. When Karas denied the district’s motion to dismiss, the district started to implement curriculum which included diversity and anti-bullying supervised by the Anti-Defamation League, but claimed these changes had nothing to do with the lawsuit. Now the school district has agreed to major reforms that can be a “blueprint for what schools across the country should do to prevent and address bullying.”
Judge Karas will retain jurisdiction for three years, during which he will ensure that the agreement is enforced. It so happens that the Pine Bush Central School District includes the village of Bloomberg, where a group of Hasidic Jews, who are newcomers to the village, have filed a civil rights suit charging the elections board with attempting to disenfranchise them, says The Times of Israel.
The settlement also requires the district to ask for assistance from the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in revising policies, training, and curriculum as part of the agreement. The Jewish Political News & Updates’ Jacob Kombluh says that in 2013, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared to a Jewish audience that New York has a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to anti-Semitic or racist harassment.
“The purpose of the required reforms is simple: to ensure that no student in the district has to endure such horrific anti-Semitic or racist harassment ever again,” Ilann Maazel, a lawyer representing the students, wrote in the court filing.
As for the Pine Bush District, current Superintendent Joan Carbone stated:
“The District has never condoned any form of bullying, discrimination, or hateful messages/actions. The Pine Bush Board of Education, administration, staff and students are committed to providing educational opportunities that promote tolerance and acceptance. In response to the comprehensive nature of the District’s efforts in this regard, The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recently recognized the District as a No Place for Hate District, citing the efforts in each of the Pine Bush school buildings.”