Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mother's Paper Trail Indicts School District in Upstate New York

For Pine Plains high schooler Anthony Zeno,
racial harassment turned life upside down (video)
By PAULA ANN MITCHELL from Daily Freeman
Anthony Zeno had a lot going for him.

He was young, full of dreams and belonged to a
close-knit, loving family. His parents left the fast pace of
Long Island in 2005 and moved their family north to
settle in the quiet Northern Dutchess town of Pine Plains.

It was a new beginning for Henry and Cathleen Zeno, who
wanted to raise their five children in a place with open
space, clean air and old-fashioned values.
“That is one of the things that drove us here,” Cathleen
Zeno said. “We wanted that hometown family feeling.
Unfortunately, we were the wrong color.”

As a dark-skinned, Hispanic male, Anthony, the oldest son,
became the object of scorn, ridicule and even death threats
while attending Stissing Mountain High School in Pine
Plains from 2005 to 2008.

Almost daily, a core group of students made his life a living
hell.  They would hurl racial epithets at him, urinate in his
locker,  yank his jewelry, strike him and often follow him
home, taunting him — sometimes with a noose or
Confederate flag hanging from their vehicles.

There even was an instance when a male classmate
got in Zeno’s face and declared he was going to rape
Zeno’s younger sister. It mattered little that Zeno
stood 6-foot-1 and played on the high school football team.
“It (the harassment) happened every day,” said Zeno,
now 24. “Every day, it was something new. Every day, I was
fighting these things. I couldn’t even go to sleep.”

To make matters worse, those who were supposed to
be fostering an atmosphere of safety in the schools did little
to address the problem, he said. “I had teachers not doing
their job. They literally watched this happen, and they
wouldn’t come forward to say anything,” he said.

Years later, Zeno has managed to put the pieces of his
life back together, though he admits it hasn’t been easy.
He attended Dutchess Community College after graduating
from Stissing Mountain in 2008 and now works full-time
as a direct-care aide for the Taconic Developmental
Disabilities Services Office.

Zeno also took the advanced barber program offered at
Dutchess BOCES and now is a master barber. In his free time,
 he boxes and trains in mixed martial arts. Zeno also is
engaged, and he and his fiancĂ©e are expecting their first child.

Zeno also has the monetary assurance that his future will
be a little bit easier, even though it came at such a high cost —
his childhood.  In March 2010, an all-white jury in a federal
discrimination suit filed against the Pine Plains school district
found the district liable under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act
of 1964 and awarded Zeno $1.25 million in damages. Title VI
prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or
national origin.

The case, heard in U.S. District Court in White Plains,
involved four days of testimony, including Zeno’s.  A judge
later reduced the award to $1 million, but the school district
appealed just the same. Last December, a federal appeals
court upheld the $1 million judgment against the district,
calling the district “deliberately indifferent” to “physical
and verbal racial harassment” suffered by a former student
at the high school.

District officials, in a statement released in December,
expressed “disappointment” in the outcome and said they
chose not to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court “based
on the legal advice of the attorneys representing the district
and insurance company.” “We have never tolerated harassment
 in our schools, nor have we failed to
 address known incidents,” the statement read.

“However, as per the court’s dictates, where more than
one incident of harassment of a student occurs by different
students over a significant period of time, it is now clear that
addressing each incident alone is not enough. Broader measures
are required.”

Zeno’s case represented one of the biggest awards ever
 issued for racial harassment at the high school level and is
significant for several reasons,
said Stephen Bergstein, the family’s attorney.

“Student harassment-bullying cases are among the most
difficult civil rights cases to win because the legal standard
requires the student to prove that the school district was
deliberately indifferent to known
harassment,” Bergstein said.

“This means that the jury has to find that the school
district essentially disregarded the problem or that it did
not care or its response to the problem was so clearly
unreasonable that it caused the student to suffer
additional harassment.”

By contrast, in workplace harassment cases, the plaintiff
only has to show the employer negligently responded to
the harassment — a much easier  standard for plaintiffs,
Bergstein noted. “For this reason, many student
harassment cases don’t even make it to trial,” the lawyer
said. “The judge dismisses the case … for lack of evidence
that the school district was deliberately indifferent.”

That was not so for the Zenos, and they made an all-out
effort to get the harassment to stop, including writing
letters to officials and appealing to district Superintendent
Linda Kaumeyer. Bergstein said the school district tried on
several occasions to address the problem,
 including bringing in the Rev. James Childs of Kingston
as a diversity trainer, but that it was “too little, too late.”

“The jurors told us after the trial that they were outraged
that the district dragged its feet in dealing with Anthony’s
harassment and that the superintendent, in particular,
was aloof when Anthony’s mother sent her letters demanding
urgent action on the problem,” Bergstein said.

“One juror was a school administrator who said that his
district would never respond to this kind of harassment
the way that Pine Plains did. He said that the evidence that
the district ignored the Human Rights Commission’s
offer to implement immediate diversity training was

It was precisely that for Zeno, too, who still bears deep
scars from the nonstop persecution. He is a private, guarded
man who has turned down countless media requests for
 interviews, but Zeno said he has come to realize that others
might learn from his experience.

That is why he and his mother decided to grant the
Freeman an exclusive interview last week. “I didn’t understand
what racism was ’til I moved up here,” Zeno said by phone
from his Kingston home. As part of the family’s move to
Dutchess County in 2005, Zeno transferred from Longwood
High School in Brookhaven, Long Island, to Stissing Mountain,
a school with a current minority population of 9 percent.

The Pine Plains school district serves students from the
Northern Dutchess towns of Clinton, Milan, North East,
Pine Plains and Stanford, as well as the Columbia County
towns of Ancram, Clermont, Gallatin and Livingston.

“Every culture was represented at the old school,” Zeno
said. “Everybody had their differences, but they worked
it out. Here, I felt like a foreigner.”

Zeno was targeted almost from day one, his mother recalled.

She said she often followed him to school to make
sure he was safe and that as the harassment escalated,
so did her paper trail.

Zeno’s mother even lost her job during the height of it
because she was leaving work so often to intervene on
her son’s behalf with school administrators.

“It got to the point where I had to keep a running log,”
 she said. “My biggest thing ... was I wanted to make sure
my child was safe. We reached out to the NAACP and
brought them to the school. We wanted to start some
changes. Unfortunately, (the school) did not utilize it,”
 Mrs. Zeno said.

Early on, the Zenos also contacted the Dutchess County
Human Rights Commission, which met with school officials
to offer solutions like assigning Anthony an adult
“shadow” as protection. But nothing seemed to work,
his mother said. After the Zenos hired Bergstein, they
began weighing their options.

The family was apprehensive about trial and even offered
to settle the case two weeks before trial for $75,000.
“It was so surreal because it was like, ‘I’m reaching out to
you.’ It was a daily cry, ‘Please, I need you to make sure
he’s safe,’” Cathleen Zeno said.

Instead, the harassment intensified, even reaching the point
where Zeno’s life was threatened, according to his family.

“One of the kids on their Myspace (page) had distributed
through the Internet a $250,000 bounty on Anthony’s head,”
his mother said, adding that it was by no means an isolated

Another time, two people appeared in a truck outside their home.
Zeno was in the front yard and reported hearing a clicking sound
 that sounded like a trigger being pulled.

When the vehicle showed up at the school the following day,
the building went into “code yellow,” and Zeno’s younger siblings
were removed while he was taken to the principal’s office, his
mother said.

“When it started to get to the death-threat level, I changed my
gears and decided to deal with state troopers,” she said. About
this time, Cathleen Zeno said she almost lost it. “I just broke
down,” she said. “I told Anthony, ‘We need to get you out of
this school,’ but he said, ‘No, Mom. We’re not going to allow
them to run us out of town. We’re going to stand our ground and
get through it.’”

While Mrs. Zeno considered her son a pillar of strength during
 the ordeal — often likening him to the biblical Daniel in the
 lion’s den — Zeno said it was his mother’s courage and his
faith that pulled him through. “Thank God I have the mother
that I have,” he said. “She raised me with religion and told us
that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s negative,
to show you a lesson in life. It was a learning experience.”

Even so, Zeno, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder,
has routinely sought therapy to cope.

“God doesn’t give you what you cannot handle,” he said. “You
have to stand. You have to be tough and not let others get the
best of you.”

Zeno has siblings left in the school, and the family is keeping a
close eye on the district to make sure it stays vigilant. In the
meantime, Zeno continues to map out his future.

A key part of that is to start some kind of anti-bullying program
combined with the martial arts to help children find their strength.
Zeno said he’s unsure how he’ll move it forward but that the idea
has been brewing in his mind for some time. “You don’t have to
have muscles or be a badass to stick up for yourself, but if you’re
a person who’s being picked on, it’ll give you discipline and be
a de-stressor,” he said.

He also has another, more personal motive to do something for
future generations of minorities or bullied youths. “I have my own
family now, and I just have to make sure that this doesn’t happen
to my children,” he said.

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