A federal appeals court has upheld a $1 million jury award against a small New York state school district found to be deliberately indifferent to persistent racial harassment of a high school student by his peers.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled unanimously in favor of the family of Anthony Zeno, who is half-white and half-Latino and is described in court papers as "dark-skinned."
Zeno was 16 when his family moved in January 2005 from Long Island to the heavily white community of Pine Plains, in Dutchess County, N.Y. At Stissing Mountain High School, where racial minorities were less than 5 percent of the student enrollment, Zeno quickly encountered the harassment, including students calling him "nigger" in the halls and telling him to go back where he came from, according to court papers. A student ripped a necklace from Zeno's neck and referred to it as Zeno's "fake rapper bling bling." There were also direct and implied threats aimed at Zeno, and references to lynching.
During the 2005-06 school year, Zeno faced racial harassment on his football team and continued comments in the hallways and in classrooms. School officials suspended offenders in some cases, but the district's superintendent declined to meet with Zeno's mother despite repeated requests. Despite the intervention of the local human rights commission and NAACP chapter, district officials declined suggestions that Zeno be assigned a "shadow" to help protect him in school.
The district coordinated a mediation session between Zeno's mother and the parents of some of his antagonists, but then neglected to inform Zeno's mother of the time and place of the session.
In his junior and senior years, Zeno faced continued hallway harassment, though he reported incidents less frequently because he did not think the school would respond. Zeno was in special education, and he eventually agreed to a form of special education diploma rather than continue in school to try to achieve a New York State Regents diploma.
Zeno sued the district, alleging race discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A jury found for Zeno and awarded him $1.25 million in compensatory damages, which the trial judge reduced to $1 million.
The Pine Plains Central School District, which has 1,100 students and a $28 million annual budget, appealed to the 2nd Circuit, arguing that it was not deliberately indifferent to Zeno's harassment. The district said it responded reasonably to each reported incident, it was under no obligation to try options such as the shadow, and that it didn't know its responses were inadequate or ineffective.
In its Dec. 3 decision in Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District, the 2nd Circuit court rejected the district's arguments.
"The jury could have found and apparently did find that the district's remedial response was inadequate — and deliberately indifferent — in at least three respects," the court said. First, while the district did discipline some students, it "dragged its feet" on implementing nondisciplinary measures such as bias training, the court said.
Second, many of those measures were "half-hearted," the court said. And third, "a jury reasonably could have found that the district ignored the many signals that greater, more-directed action was needed," it said.
"The district knew that Anthony was called 'nigger' and other racial slurs during his entire three-and-a-half years at [Sissing Mountain High School]," the court said. "The jury was entitled to conclude that the district knew that greater action was required."
The court also rejected the district's arguments that the $1 million damages award was excessive.
Zeno "was a teenager being subjected — at a vulnerable point in his life — to three-and-a-half years of racist, demeaning, threatening, and violent conduct," the court said. "Furthermore, the conduct occurred at his school, in the presence of friends, classmates, other students, and teachers. The jury reasonably could have found that the harassment would have a profound and long-term impact on Anthony's life and his ability to earn a living."
Zeno was supported in the 2nd Circuit by President Obama's administration, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that a school district may be found liable under the deliberate indifference standard "where its response to known acts of student-on-student harassment is not reasonably calculated to end persistent racial harassment."
"If a school district is aware that other students are not being deterred from engaging in harassment by individual disciplinary action, and the district continues to rely on those disciplinary measures as its exclusive remedy, that
response would not be reasonably calculated to prevent persistent harassment from occurring again," said the brief, which was signed by lawyers from the federal departments of Justice and Education.