Pine Plains school found liable in racial harassment suit
By John Davis • Poughkeepsie Journal
March 13, 2010
PINE PLAINS — A jury has decided the school district must pay the parents of a former student at Stissing Mountain Junior-Senior High School $1.25 million due to its "indifference" to the racial harassment he endured for more than three years.
The jury in federal court in White Plains rendered a verdict Friday afternoon in favor of Henry and Cathleen Zeno, parents of Anthony Zeno, 21, of the Town of Pine Plains.
The jury found Pine Plains school district officials did not take sufficient remedial action to address complaints made by Anthony Zeno of racial harassment by students during his years as a student from January 2005 to June 2008, according to Zeno family attorney Stephen Bergstein.
The Pine Plains school board released a statement this afternoon.
The statement said board members, the administration, faculty and staff have always given the physical and emotional safety of students the highest priority. "There is zero tolerance for racial, or any other form of of bullying or harassment, in our school community," the board said.
"The jury in the Zeno v. Pine Plains CSD case found our immediate discipline of students and our sustained cooperation with Dutchess County law enforcement, our student and community training and awareness program (including those of McGrath Systems and Mr. James Childs of JaRa Consulting), our student assembly programs addressing issues of diversity awareness, our conflict resolution and mediation efforts, our character education programs specifically targeting racial issues, our Students and Teachers Opposed to Prejudice (STOP) programs, and our daily, individual work with students, to be insufficient," the board said in the statement.
"Given our deeply held commitment to and advocacy for social justice, we are stunned by the jury's verdict," the board said.
"His high school years were destroyed," Bergstein said. "The jury found he endured 3 years of living hell."
The Zenos moved from Long Island to Pine Plains in 2005. Henry Zeno is Latino and Cathleen Zeno is white, Bergstein said. Anthony is "very dark skinned," which led to him being taunted by white students at Stissing Mountain with racial epithets and racially motivated threats, he said.
The trial, which began Monday, included testimony from Kaumeyer, John Howe, the former high school principal, and Maryann Stoorvogel, director of special education, Bergstein said.
"If they're deliberately indifferent to the harassment, then they're liable," he said. "The school was very flat-footed on this. They were just slow to respond."
Civil Rights verdict costs Pine Plains district $1.25M
Saturday, March 13, 2010
By PAULA MITCHELL
Kingston Freeman staff
A PINE PLAINS family was awarded $1.25 million in damages Friday after a jury found that the Pine Plains school district failed to adequately protect their son from racial harassment by his peers, a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The case, heard in U.S. District Court in White Plains, was filed by Henry and Cathleen Zeno, the parents of Anthony Zeno, who graduated from Stissing Mountain Senior High School in Pine Plains in 2008.
The family had moved to Pine Plains from Long Island in 2005, and Anthony, who is dark-skinned and multi-racial, began attending high school in January of that year.
Almost immediately, racial epithets and harassment started against Anthony, said Stephen Bergstein, the Chester-based attorney who represented the Zeno family.
“He underwent relentless racial harassment there. Till the day he ended school there, there were attacks, violence and even a death threat in the bathroom,” Bergstein said, adding that one student even brought in a noose at one time.
“Kids were heard saying ‘nigger’ in the hallway. His high school career was really destroyed. He was terribly damaged by it,” Bergstein said.
The Zeno family made repeated efforts to get the harassment to stop, Bergstein said, including writing letters to officials and appealing to district Superintendent Linda Kaumeyer.
Bergstein said the school tried on several occasions to address the problem, including bringing in the Rev. James Childs as a diversity trainer, but he said it was “too little too late.”
“It took the school a long time to bring in the Rev. Childs, and while they were punishing kids, (the harassment) wasn’t stopping. You have to find more proactive ways to deal with the problem,” he said.
The jury deliberated for seven hours before reaching a verdict in favor of the Zeno family.
“The jury found that the school district was deliberately indifferent,” Bergstein said. “They were astounded at the level of racial discrimination that was going on in that school.”
The Pine Plains school district was represented by the Poughkeepsie law firm of Shaw and Perelson.
School officials did not comment on the matter and referred all inquiries to their lawyers, who did not return phone calls in time for this report.
“The $1.25 million (in damages) is a large amount of money,” said Bergstein. “Boy, does that send a message to the school.”