$1 Million Award for Racial Harassment Upheld

Britney Buscaglia

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has upheld an award of $1 million to Anthony Zeno, a high school student who suffered shocking racial harassment over the course of several years at Stissing Mountain High School in Dutchess County. The appellate panel concluded that the jury’s award, one of the largest ever rendered for racial harassment, was fair and reasonable given the nature and duration of the egregious conduct involved.

Zeno brought suit against the Pine Plains Central School District pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after enduring consistent racially motivated harassment and threats from the time he transferred to the school in 2005 at the age of 16 through 2008, when he withdrew.

According to court records, within weeks of his arrival at Stissing Mountain High, a school where minority students made up less than 5% of the student population, fellow students began harassing Zeno (the opinion indicates Zeno is half-Latino and half-white, but dark skinned). Early on they informed him they didn’t want “his kind” at the school and barraged him with ethnic and racial slurs.

Zeno was also subject to unprovoked threats and acts of violence. One student, a teammate on the football team, punched Zeno. Another had to be restrained from launching an unprovoked attack on Zeno. A third was stopped just before assaulting Zeno with a chair.

The students’ taunts were unrelenting. They filled his locker with garbage, harassed him in the hallways and tampered with his personal and school property (for example, his locker door was rigged to fall onto his head). Threats to kill Zeno appeared as graffiti on school bathroom walls. A group of students even threatened to lynch him, going so far as displaying a noose to do so.

This despicable and shocking conduct continued over a period of years, despite Zeno’s mother’s attempts to seek help from the school administration. Early in the course of his daily torment, Zeno’s mother approached the school’s principal who upon hearing her concerns simply advised that it was “a small town,” and she shouldn’t “burn bridges.” Although she attempted to obtain assistance from those in the District above the local school administration, the District took little action. Zeno’s mother had to obtain at least two separate orders of protection. Finally, the District suspended some of the harassing students, but only for small periods of time (typically 5 days). Only one student was transferred to another school.

The Court of Appeals held that based upon the testimony and evidence presented about Zeno’s consistent harassment over the 3-year period, and the District’s notice and knowledge of the same, the jury could have reasonably concluded that the harassment Zeno suffered was “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” well beyond simple name calling or teasing. The Court further held that it was within the jury’s discretion to find that such conduct discriminatorily deprived Zeno of education benefits, including: (1) a scholastic environment free of racism and harassment; (2) obtaining a Regents diploma (Zeno left school early with an IEP diploma rather than completing his Regents studies); and (3) completing his education at the school.

In addition, the Court of Appeals found that the jury acted when it found: (1) that the District exercised substantial control over the circumstances of harassment Zeno suffered on the school grounds; (2) showed “deliberate indifference” by failing to take appropriate remedial action until after an unjustifiable delay of at least a year, and (3) took cursory measures which did not remedy the harassment, all which eventually led to Zeno’s premature withdrawal from school prior to completing his education. The Court thus affirmed the jury’s award pursuant to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (42 USC 200d).
AWARD: $1,000,000
COURT: U.S. Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit

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