Student Awarded $1 Million In Student Harassment Case Against School District

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On December 3, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision that the Pine Plains Central School District violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. [1]

For over three years, Plaintiff-appellee Anthony Zeno was a victim to racial bullying by his fellow classmates. When the school district failed to take action to eliminate or alleviate the harassment, Plaintiff commenced this lawsuit on July 18, 2007 “alleging discrimination in violation of Title VI.” [2] The district court held in favor of Plaintiff and awarded $1 million in damages. The case was then appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. [3]

On appeal, the court assessed the district’s liability for “Student-on-Student Harassment under Title VI.”  Title VI provides that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” [4] Pursuant to this statute, the court in Davis ex rel. Lashonda D. v. Monroe County Board of Education explained that school liability can result from being “‘deliberately indifferent’ to teacher or peer harassment of a student.” [5] The Court of Appeals explained the requirements for liability under the deliberate indifference standard which include:

“(1) substantial control, (2) severe and discriminatory harassment, (3) actual knowledge, and (4) deliberate indifference.” [6]

First, the court concluded that Plaintiff did in fact suffer “severe and discriminatory harassment” based upon the evidence that “from 2005 through 2008, many students in the District taunted, harassed, menaced, and physically assaulted Anthony. His peers made frequent pejorative references to his skin tone, calling him a ‘nigger’ nearly every day.” [7] Next, the court concluded that the district possessed “substantial control” based upon the evidence that:

First, faculty and staff members at the District reported numerous incidents to Howe during Anthony’s first two years at SMHS. Second, Anthony also reported racial harassment in the hallways throughout his three-and-a-half years at SMHS. Third, during that same time period, Mrs. Zeno contacted school administrators between thirty and fifty times. Fourth, various third parties—The Dutchess County HRC, the Dutchess County N.A.A.C.P., the Zenos’ attorney, and the police—raised the issue of students harassing Anthony with the District. [8]

The court further explained that the district did in fact have control based upon the fact that “[t]he incidents described above occurred on SMHS grounds or its property (such as the buses to BOCES).” [9]

Lastly, the court found that even though the district did discipline the known harassers of Plaintiff, the district was still “deliberately indifferent” because the response was not sufficient. The court explains that “[t]he sufficiency of a response, however, must be considered ‘in light of the known circumstances,’” [10] In this case, the court notes that “[r]esponses that are not reasonably calculated to end harassment are inadequate.” [11]

At the termination of the case, Plaintiff Anthony Zeno was awarded 1$ million.

If your institution has any further questions or concerns about Title VI claims in schools, or education law related matters, please email Cynthia Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.

A special thanks to Laura DeLuca, a law clerk at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for help with this post.

  1. [1] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012).
  2. [2]    Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012).
  3. [3]   Id.  
  4. [4] 42 § U.S.C. 2000d.
  5. [5] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012), citing Davis ex rel. Lashonda D. v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 643 (1999).
  6. [6] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012)
  7. [7] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833, at * 25 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012).
  8. [8] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833, at * 28 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012).
  9. [9] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833, at * 29 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012).
  10. [10] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833, at * 28 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012), citing DiStiso v. Cook, 691 F.3d 226, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 17682, 2012 WL 3570755 (2d Cir. Conn. 2012).
  11. [11] Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 24833, at *32 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 3, 2012), citing Vance v. Spencer Cnty. Pub. Sch. Dist., 231 F.3d 253, 262 (6th Cir. 2000).