Middle school anti-Semitism suit claims officials failed to censor N.Y. newspaper

NEW YORK — Thefamily of a middle school student has filed a federal class-action lawsuitagainst Mahopac Central School District, claiming officials did nothing toprotect their daughter from bullying and anti-Semitic taunts – includingallowing an article to be published in the student newspaper that the familyclaims was anti-Semitic.

The suit alleges a lack of intervention by administratorsand teachers after the incidents were brought to their attention. Variousallegations of anti-Semitism are detailed in the complaint, including swastikasbeing openly displayed by some students, as well as harassment through socialmedia and the newspaper article.

The complaint brings 15 claims against the district,including negligence, defamation, emotional distress and violation of the NewYork Human Rights Law.

Guilia Frasca, attorney for the plaintiffs, said theharassment and intimidation of the student has been ongoing since the familymoved to the district in 2004. The complaint said the discrimination “becameextremely vile and dangerous during the 2009-10 school year.”

“There was an article a student wroteregarding Brandeis University and that was published in the paper and therewere anti-Semitic statements in that article,” she said. “Therefore the plaintiffs wrote to the school that that should not have been published and asked for an apology for it.”

In the story — “The Final Stretch, We Made It: Now What?” —a Chieftain student writer discussesa university they visited:

“Bucknell was a good school academically, wasn’t too farfrom home, and had all the programs that I was interested in. But when Iresearching [sic] more about the school, I discovered something different: notonly were the founders of Bucknell Jewish, but a large majority of the studentbody was as well. Well, that changed some things — don’t get me wrong, I havenothing against Judaism… Next to schools like American and Northwestern, beingone non-religious student in a very highly Jewish community didn’t appeal to meas much.”

According to the complaint, the writer was actuallyreferring to Brandeis University, not Bucknell.

Frasca said that if the school’s mission is to preventdiscrimination, the content could have been censored under the U.S. SupremeCourt’s Hazelwood School District v.Kuhlmeier standard. The Mahopac Middle School Student Handbook containspassages outlining unacceptable behavior, including “bullying,profanity, threats, harassing or abusive language, including sexual harassment,racial and ethnic slurs.”

Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for theStudent Press Law Center, said he thinks the anti-Semitism claim against thestudent newspaper is a bit strong.

“I wish that people would think long and hardbefore labeling something racist or anti-Semitic. It’s a serious charge tomake,” he said. “As I read the story, while she wasn’t the most artful in herchoice of language, I don’t think that it’s anti-Semitic. I think it’s morethat she would feel comfortable at a non-religious university, the same thing asif she were talking about Notre Dame or Brigham Young.”

The complaint also details fabrication of a Facebook pagethat contained defamatory statements and anti-Semitic remarks against thestudent.

Frasca said the lawsuit seeks an order fromthe court for supervised employee training and diversity programs for employeesand students of the district. The plaintiffs are also seeking monetary damages.

“We’re hoping that they will change theirpolicy,” she said. “We are looking for them to take action against bullying,anti-Semitism, discrimination; there has been pervasive and continuedharassment and intimidation of a student. We’re looking for them to create anenvironment that is not hostile.”

The federal judge assigned to the case must certify theclass action in order for it to move forward. In a Feb. 7 letter to the court,attorneys for the school district wrote that the lawsuit fails to meet the requirementsfor a class action.

“The plaintiffs base their class action allegations onapparent calculations as to the number of Jewish children who may be students in the District, yetthey fail to identify any such students with similar claims,” the letter said.

“The Complaint is devoid of any allegations to raise aplausible claim that the District was deliberately indifferent to any harassmentshe faced because of her race, color, or national origin such that it amountedto intentional discrimination.”

Frasca said in another school district in Duchess County inNew York, there has been bullying that led to the suicide of two students andthe attempted suicide by two other students.

“It’s all related to the same thing: bullying that occurs inthe school district, through social media,” she said. “And nothing is done bythe school to prevent this to allow the children to have a free and appropriateeducation without suffering this bullying.”

A hearing in the case is scheduled for March 3.

Louis Silverman, attorney for Mahopac Central SchoolDistrict, said the school had no comment. Chieftain editors also declined to comment.