PINE BUSH – It was announced on Monday, June 29, that the Pine Bush Central School District has reached a settlement over a lawsuit that alleged deliberate administrative indifference to acts of anti-Semitism and persecution against five current and former Jewish students over a number of years. The anti-Semitic acts took place beginning at Pine Bush Elementary School, continued through Crispell Middle School, and lasted into Pine Bush High School.
Compounding the situation, it was announced Tuesday that the district is suing its insurer, Utica National Insurance Group, after the company denied the district's claim for coverage. In case it fails to win its case against Utica National, PBSD may have to raise the settlement funds through increasing the tax levy on local taxpayers; the district currently has an unrestricted fund balance of $5.92 million and a tax levy set at $55.67 million for the coming school year.
The lawsuit was filed in March 2012 and resulted in a front page New York Times story a year later, followed by a call out from Governor Andrew Cuomo in his 2014 State of the State speech and subsequent state and federal criminal investigations, as well as much reaction from within the school district itself.
The announcement came two weeks before the civil rights lawsuit's trial date at the Federal District Court in White Plains.
The school district will pay $4.48 million in damages, of which Judge Kenneth Karas has demanded two thirds must go to the students and the rest to their lawyers.
The student plaintiffs reported a range of improper behaviors, from swastikas being drawn on their desks, lockers and in one case on a girl's face, to insults and crude, racist nicknames, Nazi style salutes and even physical violence. The school administration was charged with failing to take sufficient action to protect the students and to discipline those who targeted them.
Judge Karas is expected to retain jurisdiction over the terms of the settlement for the next three years.
In 2014, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, announced that following examination of the case there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the district had failed to respond to pervasive ant-Semitic harassment in the schools. That was followed by Judge Karas's denial of a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November 2014. At that time the judge noted that the time line of the anti-Semitic acts included "uncontested facts," and he concluded that a jury could reasonably find that the plaintiffs "suffered severe and discriminatory harassment, that the district had actual knowledge of the harassment, and that the district was deliberately indifferent to the harassment."
A joint statement, released by the district and the five student plaintiffs, said, "After several years of investigation, the parties came together to reach a resolution based on a comprehensive plan to address anti-Semitic harassment allegations in the school system."
The agreement, reached after thirty hours of mediation, sets out payments to each of the students of $581,803.80 in compensatory damages, plus $77,648 in costs and $1,493,333 in legal fees. The board voting on the settlement broke 4-2, with Roseanne Sullivan and Eric Meier opposing it, while board president Lloyd Greer and trustees James Starr, Cara Robertson and Gretchen Meier voted in favor.
The district, noting that it "will never condone anti-Semitic slurs or graffiti, Holocaust 'jokes' or physical violence," committed to reforming policies and procedures to improve monitoring, addressing and responding to anti-Semitic harassment. The district will also develop a curriculum to promote better understanding of the roots of intolerance.
"These five children stood up for themselves, for their community, and for what is right," said Ilann M. Maazel of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, co-counsel for the students. "After all the suffering, the isolation, and the trauma they endured, they should be proud that they made a difference in Pine Bush."
Adele Kimmel, senior attorney for the advocacy group Public Justice — who served as co-counsel on the case — commented, "The substantial reforms in the Pine Bush settlement are a blueprint for what school districts across the country should do to prevent and address bullying in their schools. The education and training programs required by the settlement are a particularly crucial component of any anti-bullying plan. Because the brave students in this case don't want others to suffer as they did, schools now have a roadmap for reducing harassment and improving tolerance."
The official district/plaintiff's statement concluded, "Protecting its students from acts of bullying, harassment, intimidation and threats, is one of the school district's highest priorities. With vigilant and consistent education and training, the school district can continue to provide students with a safe learning environment and the necessary tools to prepare them to be productive members of an increasingly global and diverse society."
"The settlement is sweeping," added Maazel. "The agreement requires significant reform over three years and includes requirements for new policies, teacher training, professional development, student discipline, tracking, reporting and investigations of anti-Semitic incidents, a revamped anti-discrimination coordinator — all under the oversight of the federal government and subject to the continuing jurisdiction of the federal court."
"The district and the district's legal counsel firmly believe the claim should be covered and therefore the district is proceeding with litigation against Utica National Insurance Group," Carbone said in a statement about the insurers' refusal and district lawsuit on Tuesday. Utica National Insurance Group refused to comment.
The settlement cannot be finalized until the parties attend a hearing in U.S. District Court in White Plains on July 9 because two of the students are still minors. As part of the agreement's stipulations, the district must maintain its "No Place for Hate" committee and current Anti-Defamation League curriculum, as well as seek assistance on its policy development from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for three years.