NY court OKs $1M school racial harassment award

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by Larry Neumeister

NEW YORK (AP) — One of the biggest awards ever issued for racial harassment in high school — $1 million — was upheld Monday by a federal appeals panel that said it was fair for a jury to conclude a school district should have done more to stop demeaning, threatening and violent conduct directed at a student.

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The decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan left in place the award for Anthony Zeno, a former student at Stissing Mountain High School in Dutchess County. The award had been reduced from the $1.25 million a jury originally awarded the now 23-year-old haircutter during a 2010 trial. The appeals court said the award wasn’t unreasonable given that payouts for harassment in similar cases have ranged from the low six figures to $1 million in one other instance.

The appeals court’s opinion noted that Zeno is “dark-skinned and biracial, half-white, half-Latino.” It said he “had been menaced, threatened and taunted” at a school where minorities represented less than 5 percent of the student population.

“He endured numerous serious — and sometimes life threatening — incidents of harassment,” it said.

It said the Pine Plains Central School District, the defendant in a lawsuit brought by Zeno, knew Zeno was called numerous racial slurs during his 3 1/2 years at the high school from 2005 to 2008 and it was fair for a jury to conclude that school officials should have known that greater action was required beyond punishing individual students each time an attack occurred or offering optional sensitivity training sessions.

The opinion written by Circuit Judge Denny Chin said the appeals court concluded that the school district’s “deliberately indifferent responses effectively caused Anthony’s continued harassment.”

Zeno’s lawyer, Stephen Bergstein, praised the ruling, saying: “It’s going to help a lot of kids.”

“Districts will put better programs in place, keep a better eye out on the kids that are being harassed,” he said. “The school was reactive, and you have to be proactive.”

Lawyers for the school district did not return a call for comment Monday.

The harassment began in February 2005, weeks after Zeno transferred from Long Island, with racial slurs and frequent taunts. Over time, his harassment worsened, with a football teammate punching him, a student being restrained as he was about to throw a chair at him and his discovery of bathroom wall graffiti saying, “Zeno will die,” the 2nd Circuit said. Other students filled his locker with garbage and taunted him with references to lynching, including displaying a noose and threatening to take a rope to the nearest tree, the court said.

The school district suspended some harassing students, typically for five days, and moved one student to another school. Twice, Zeno obtained orders of protection.

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