A school system was rightly directed to pay $1 million in damages for failing to take measures to stop persistent racist bullying and attacks on a black student that lasted more than three years, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a $1 million award under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in favor of Anthony Zeno, who endured assaults, racist taunting and threats that a jury found should have been squarely addressed by officials at Pine Plains Central School District in New York.
Judges Jose Cabranes, Debra Ann Livingston and Denny Chin soundly rejected the school system's argument that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the award in Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District, 10-3604-cv.
The panel had some scathing language for the district's argument that the court should look to employment discrimination cases for guidance because Zeno had established only "garden variety" damages.
"The fact is that this is not an employment discrimination case, nor are the damages of the 'garden variety' type," Chin wrote for the panel. "Anthony was not an adult losing sleep to workplace stress. Rather, he was a teenager being subjectedat a vulnerable point in his lifeto three-and-a-half years of racist, demeaning, threatening and violent conduct."
When at age 16 Zeno moved from Long Island to Pine Plains in Dutchess County, he transferred as a freshman to Stissing Mountain High School, where minorities make up less than 5 percent of the student body.
The harassment began as a student ran charging toward Zeno screaming and threatening to "rip" his "face off," telling him, "We don't want your kind here." While the assailant was being restrained by other students, he called Zeno a "nigger" and told him to go back where he came from.
When Zeno's mother, Cathleen Zeno, voiced concern to the school principal, John Francis Howe, he allegedly said, "This is a small town and . . . you don't want to start burning your bridges."
Cathleen Zeno would meet with Howe between 30 and 50 times over the next three-plus years. The racist taunts and physical attacks escalated into her son's sophomore year, when a football teammate punched him and said "he was going to kick [Zeno's] black ass." Another student had to be stopped from hitting Zeno with a chair as he yelled a racist slur. And Zeno walked into a school bathroom to see the graffiti "Zeno is dead" and "Zeno will die."
Zeno also was threatened with references to lynching, with students displaying a noose or threatening to put a rope around a nearby tree. The school responded in some of these incidents by suspending students, some for five days, and by moving one student to another school.