Ending Anti-Semitic Bullying in Schools: Sometimes, It Takes a Court

06/30/2015 09:20 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016


Pine Bush Central School District didn't have an anti-Semitic bullying "problem," it had a nightmare.

Jewish children in three of the district's schools were subjected to systemic, repeated acts of anti-Semitic harassment for years. Instead of being a safe place for learning, Pine Bush schools were a place where students were free to terrify their Jewish peers with physical violence, Nazi salutes, "white power" chants, anti-Semitic slurs, coin-throwing, Holocaust "jokes," and swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti (including the one pictured above) on desks, lockers, yearbooks, walls, and more. When bullies hold down a student and try to shove coins down his throat while calling him a "dirty Jew" -- and things like this happened on a regular basis despite repeated complaints to school officials -- how can a child feel safe?

Did the school district decide, on its own, to act? As parents, that's what we would hope and expect. But the answer is "no." The school district, located in New York, told parents that the incidents they reported were "isolated," and did virtually nothing. It's not like the school district didn't know; there were numerous reports of anti-Semitic incidents year after year, and they had to clean swastikas off desks, lockers and walls. But there was little discipline, no meetings of administrators to address the problem, virtually no training on anti-Semitic harassment, and careful actions designed to avoid putting anything in writing, lest it end up in the "paper."

Pine Bush's failure to acknowledge the problem was so bad that when Jewish students reported someone had written "f**k the Jews" in a bathroom, they were told they were "just looking for trouble." The former Pine Bush Superintendent even asked the parents of the targeted Jewish students: "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?"

Meanwhile, Jewish children in the school district were suffering deeply. They talked about wanting to kill themselves rather than face another day of horrific, off-the-charts abuse.

So, three Jewish families decided to act. Since the school district ignored their complaints, they filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2012. My public interest law firm, Public Justice, led by brilliant senior attorney Adele Kimmel, joined an all-star team of lawyers (and I particularly want to recognize the remarkable work of Ilann Maazel of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady), to fight this miserable situation.

Faced with a lawsuit that detailed the harassment these students faced for years, did the school district do the right thing? Nope! Instead, they lawyered up, denying any responsibility. The school district moved to dismiss the case, which is essentially a procedure that says "even if everything the plaintiffs say is true, that doesn't mean we did anything wrong." Which makes you wonder: Did they really think there was nothing wrong with running a school district that turns a blind eye to violence, epithets and Nazi salutes?

Then the lawsuit began to gain momentum. Deposition after deposition was taken, developing an increasingly damning evidentiary record. The case landed on the front page of the New York Times, and federal and state authorities launched investigations into the allegations.

Then federal Judge Kenneth Karas denied the school district's motion to dismiss the suit. And, lo and behold, the district started to make some changes. It began to implement a diversity and anti-bullying curriculum, run by the Anti-Defamation League, for example. The school district essentially tried to claim that these changes had nothing to do with the lawsuit. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, the case proceeded in court. After the school district failed in an attempt to appeal, Judge Karas set the case for a jury trial. Only then did the school district finally agree to a settlement that requires sweeping reforms. Yesterday, the agreement was presented to Judge Karas for his consideration and approval.

The school district has agreed to a series of major reforms that should dramatically change the environment in Pine Bush schools and drastically reduce anti-Semitic bullying. These reforms are a blueprint for what schools across the country should do to prevent and address bullying. Our clients didn't just file a lawsuit for themselves. They wanted to make sure that no other students in Pine Bush suffer the abuse that they've suffered.

The school district agreed to comprehensive reform over three years that includes new anti-bullying policies, training, student education and discipline, tracking, reporting and investigations of anti-Semitic incidents, as well as an annual anti-bullying survey. The school district must also revise its anti-bullying policies to ensure they prohibit anti-Semitic harassment, and that such harassment is "promptly and thoroughly" investigated. The district must impose "meaningful, consistent, minimum consequences" for anti-Semitic harassment and increase the severity of the consequences for repeated harassment. The district will provide mandatory training for teachers and other district employees on how to recognize and report anti-Semitic and other forms of harassment, as well as an anti-bullying and diversity curriculum for all students, led by the Anti-Defamation League. The settlement also requires monitoring of the district's progress in addressing bias, discrimination, bullying, intimidation and harassment.

To ensure that these reforms succeed, they will be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and subject to the court's continuing jurisdiction for the next three years.

Finally, the school district agreed to pay compensation to the students, and fees, of $4.48 million. Money will not give them back their innocence and will not erase what they experienced. But compensation is appropriate for children who have been scarred by this kind of abuse.

School bullying should not be tolerated. When school officials treat it as a rite of passage ("kids will be kids"), they misunderstand the long-term damage it can cause.

Our clients were lucky to have a court system available to them where they could bring their claims, present their evidence, and have a right to a trial by jury. Otherwise, it's likely some administrator trying to avoid a paper trail would still be telling them not to stir up trouble. The court system enabled these students to end a reign of terror. These brave students are changing the world, and we're proud to represent them.