School District’s Actions To Stop Bullying Not Enough To Avoid $1 Million Damages In Student-On-Student Harassment Case

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In Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District, the school district lost its challenge to a $1 million damage award for student-on-student harassment. Former student Anthony Zeno prevailed at trial against his school district for its deliberate indifference to students taunting, harassing, menacing, and physically assaulting him. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found not only that a school district is responsible for having not done enough to prevent student-on-student harassment, but also that a $1 million damage award is reasonable because student-on-student harassment may have a “profound and long-term impact” on a Zeno’s “life and his ability to earn a living.”

At trial, Zeno demonstrated that from his freshman through senior years in high school students harassed him using racial language, taunts, threats, and physical violence. Zeno and his mother reported many incidents to school administrators, who responded by disciplining, often with suspensions, students involved in the individual incidents. At one time, the school held mediation with Zeno, his mother, and the harassers with their parents. School administrators also reported violent threats to the police. Zeno requested that the school district provide him with an adult escort and implement a racial sensitivity program, both of which the school district declined to pursue.

The school district did not do enough to avoid liability. The Circuit Court explained that “[r]esponses that are not reasonably calculated to end harassment are inadequate.” Specifically, the Circuit Court found that the school district should have done more after the first semester Zeno faced harassment. The Circuit Court characterized the school’s mediation attempt as half-hearted. The Circuit Court also found that while eliminating harassment is not required for an adequate response, it was not plausible that the response the school district took in this case would have stopped the harassment. Accordingly, the school district’s responses amounted to deliberate indifference to discrimination.

The Zeno decision demonstrates the increasing liability risks presented by student-on-student harassment and the importance of responding effectively to bullying.

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