In an emotionally charged White Plains courtroom, a 17-year-old Jewish girl — holding back tears — told the judge, “I hate who I am because of what I went through. … I am angry at the world.”
She was one of two Jewish 17-year-old girls to tell the court last week what years of anti-Semitic bullying in the upstate Pine Bush School District did to them and their families.
Her classmate, identified only as T.E., told the court, “I personally think that what happened to me was beyond bullying, it was torture. I expected that by reporting what was going on someone would help me. All they did was let me down.”
Their statements to White Plains Federal Judge Kenneth Karas were made as the judge approved a $4.48 million settlement of a 2012 lawsuit against the district that they brought along with three other Jewish students and a third set of parents.
As part of the settlement, the district — which covers parts of Ulster, Sullivan and Orange counties — did not admit to any wrongdoing but has agreed to make major changes in the way it trains its teachers and administrators “to eliminate and prevent future instances of anti-Semitic harassment in its education programs and activities.”
The district’s school board is planning to meet this week to discuss the settlement and how it is to be paid. Under the terms of the settlement, the district must deliver the plaintiffs’ lawyers a check for the $4.48 million within 30 days of the judge’s approval. A total of $3 million goes to the families and the rest to the lawyers.
Joan Carbone, the district superintendent of schools, said in a letter to residents that the insurance company with which the district has umbrella coverage has “denied coverage for any judgment or settlement” and that legal action would be taken against the company to recoup the settlement costs.
In her comments to the judge, O.C., whose full name was withheld because she is a minor, said: “I am not fine, I never was fine, I don’t think I will ever be fine. I will never be able to get those years of my childhood back. I have suffered greatly because of the anti-Semitic hate. … Because of this case, I am a different person — and I am not sure if that is a good thing.”
She said that by the time she entered high school, she had become “reserved, judgmental and slightly bitter. I referred to myself as a mean person because that’s how I acted. … I started to become depressed, suicidal, I would self-harm and self-hate.”
She pointed out that she had a brother in the district and believes they would have had a “closer relationship” today had they both not endured anti-Semitic bullying.
“I thought he hated me because he would scream at me for doing absolutely nothing. … I [later] realized he didn’t hate me, he was taking out his frustrations on me.”
T.E. said her seventh grade teacher told her to stop reporting to him what was happening to her everyday. Instead, he told her to write it all down in a notebook and give it to him at the end of each week.
“He told me I was just looking for trouble. He couldn’t understand why I was upset by seeing a swastika in the school. If it wasn’t personally directed at me, I shouldn’t care.”
The next year, T. E. withdrew from school “halfway through eighth grade because she could not handle the fear of not knowing what was going to happen to her day after day,” her mother, Sherri Eccleston, said in a statement to the judge. “No child should ever have to fear going to school.”
O.C.’s father, David Cohen, told the judge that it was his son who first told him of the anti-Semitic bullying he faced at school and that he initially told his son to “take the high road” and ignore it. But he said he complained to the school principal after a girl slapped her son in the face and called him a “dirty Jew.”
“I was assured that this was an isolated incident and the kids would be reprimanded. My son said no more … . It wasn’t until the same bullying started happening to his sister, that he decided to speak up again.”
Cohen said his son said he had stopped telling his father of the continued attacks against him because he believed no one would do anything anyway. But now that his sister was similarly being bullied, he opened up.
“He told me about being ganged up on and smacked in the head almost every single day of this sophomore year because, in his words, ‘If anyone tries to stop them, it’ll just get worse.’ He told me he stopped thinking of himself as a human being … that a Jew must be some kind of object. My daughter was called dirty Jew and many other anti-Semitic slurs. She had dirt thrown at her, pennies thrown at her, and money shoved in her mouth while being held down by two boys. I reported these things over and over hoping someone would finally see that the problem was systemic — not isolated incidents — but nothing changed and the bullying continued.”
In her remarks, Eccleston asked the court to “imagine if you sent your child to school and people said horrible things to them, called them horrible names, told them they should have died, drew hateful pictures on their desk and in the bathrooms, hallways and classrooms they had to be in every day. Imagine if your child had things thrown at them in the hallways at school. And when they got on the school bus to come home to safety, it happened there too.”
When she and her child reported it to school officials — from the vice principal to the superintendent of schools — “we were told to ignore it, that it was an isolated incident, that they would handle it, or finally, that Pine Bush had a history of inbred prejudice that would be hard to overcome. They said there was nothing they could do to change the way many of these children thought.”
Eccleston said that because of the district’s failure to “protect” her child, her daughter and the other children who filed the suit suffered “not just physical injury, but they lost part of their childhood and their innocence and they will never get it back.”
One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Ilann Maazel, told The Jewish Week he is hopeful that the “sweeping and far-reaching settlement” ushers in a “new day for the Pine Bush School District.”
“It is designed to do everything we can to eradicate anti-Semitic bullying in these schools,” he added.
To do that, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights developed guidelines to which the district has agreed to adhere, including revising its harassment policies so that any anti-Semitic incidents (reported or observed) are responded to “appropriately and immediately” with a full investigation, beefed-up consequences for repeated harassment and mitigation for the effect of the harassment.
By Jan. 1, the district must also have added anti-Semitic harassment to its discrimination and anti-bullying policies, including examples; instituted a zero-tolerance policy for name-calling and bullying; require that anti-Semitic graffiti is photographed and completely removed; establish and enforce minimum consequences for all forms of harassment; report and track such incidents and send letters to parents at the beginning of every school year explaining the zero-tolerance policy for all forms of harassment and minimum and maximum disciplinary consequences.
The guidelines sound good on paper, but come too late for five Pine Bush Jewish students still grappling with all they endured at the hands of their hate-filled classmates.