Court Affirms $1M Indifference Verdict Against School District
Anthony Zeno moved from Long Island to Pine Plains, New York when he was 16. He enrolled at Stissing Mountain High School, a racially-homogenous school where minorities represented less than five percent of the student population. While at SMHS, Anthony — who the Second Circuit Court of Appeals described as “dark-skinned and biracial (half-white, half-Latino)” — endured three-and-a-half years of “racist, demeaning, threatening, and violent conduct” from his peers.
Anthony reported the bullying. Faculty and staff members reported issues. Anthony’s parents called school officials. Lawyers and the NAACP became involved.
Beyond disciplining students involved in incidents with warning or suspension, the Pine Plains Central School District didn’t implement remedial measures in response to the harassment.
Anthony sued the District for deliberate indifference to the harassment. A jury found the District liable for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and awarded Anthony $1.25 million in damages. This week, the Second Circuit affirmed a reduced, $1 million judgment against the District.
If you have a few minutes to spare, peruse the facts in this case. The Second Circuit provides an extensive review of the harassment that Anthony suffered, which is even more horrifying when you realize that this is just a summary of what his high school experience was like. Kids can be cruel, but it's worse when you consider that kids have to learn intolerance from someone else.
On appeal, the District argued that it was not deliberately indifferent and that the lower court erred in denying its motion for judgment as a matter of law. Specifically, the District claimed that (1) it reasonably responded to each reported incident, (2) it was under no obligation to implement reforms Anthony's lawyer requested, and (3) it never knew that its responses were inadequate or ineffective.
(Sidebar: Perhaps the District's first clue that its responses were "inadequate or ineffective" should have been that this poor kid was harassed for more than three years? Maybe?)
The Supreme Court's deliberate indifference standard is pretty narrow. Liability only arises if a plaintiff establishes substantial control, severe and discriminatory harassment, actual knowledge, and deliberate indifference. (Yes, the term-used-to-define-a-term thing is annoying, but who are we to argue with the Supremes?)
A school district will be subject to liability for third-party conduct only if it "exercises substantial control over both the harasser and the context in which the known harassment occurs." A school district exercises substantial control when the harassment occurs "during school hours and on school grounds." Its actions are only deliberately indifferent if they were "clearly unreasonable" in light of the known circumstances.
Here, the Second Circuit agreed that a jury could have reasonably found that Anthony was subject to actionable harassment and that the District's responses amounted to deliberate indifference.
While the underlying facts in this case might make you lose faith in humanity, at least the outcome can restore your faith in the courts.
- Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. Dist. (FindLaw's CaseLaw)
- School Officials to Head Back to Court Before Going Back to School (FindLaw's Second Circuit Blog)
- Court Questions 'Deliberate Indifference' in Child Rape Case (FindLaw's Fifth Circuit Blog)
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