US court upholds $1 million for Latino student harassed in high school
A jury awarded $1 million to a Latino man for the years of racial threats and harassment he endured at a rural high school in New York. The appeals court called the amount appropriate.
A federal appeals court on Monday upheld a $1 million jury award to a Latino man who endured 3 1/2 years of racial threats and harassment at a rural high school in New York.
The judges said the $1 million in compensatory damages to the former student, Anthony Zeno, was an appropriate amount given that school officials were aware of the ongoing harassment but did not take effective action to stop it.
âWe conclude there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the juryâs finding that the Districtâs responses to student harassment of Anthony amounted to deliberate indifference to discrimination,â Judge Denny Chin wrote for the unanimous panel.
In his freshman year of high school, Mr. Zeno transferred from Long Island to Stissing Mountain High School in Pine Plains, New York. The school had minority attendance of less than five percent, and many students used Zenoâs ethnic heritage as a basis to taunt, harass, menace, and physically assault him.
âHis peers made frequent pejorative references to his skin tone, calling him a âniggerâ nearly every day,â Judge Chin said.
âThey also referred to him as âhomeyâ and âgangster,â while making reference to his âhoodâ and âfake rapper bling bling.â â
Chin continued: âHe received explicit threats as well as implied threats, such as references to lynching.â
In his sophomore year, the threats intensified. According to the opinion, halfway through the year he told school officials: âIâm tired of this â I canât take any more of it, I have to stop this â This has been going on forever.â
Finally, in his senior year, rather than continue to face the harassment, Zeno left the school and earned an equivalency degree. He also filed a lawsuit against the school district for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars recipients of federal funding from engaging in racial discrimination.
To prevail, Zenoâs lawyer had to prove that district officials were âdeliberately indifferentâ to the ongoing racial harassment of students over whom they exerted control.
School officials said they took appropriate action, disciplining those responsible and initiating programs to foster a more accepting environment at the high school. But a jury found that they hadnât done enough.
Zeno was deprived of a supportive, scholastic environment free of racism and harassment, the appeals court said.
Lawyers for the district argued that Zeno had proved no more than a âgarden varietyâ type of damage case. They said the $1 million award was excessive.
The appeals court disagreed. âAnthony was not an adult losing sleep due to workplace stress,â Chin said. âRather, he was a teenager being subjected â at a vulnerable point in his life â to 3 1/2 years of racist, demeaning, threatening, and violent conduct.â
The judge added: âGiven the severity, duration, and egregiousness of Anthonyâs unchecked harassment, his [$1 million] award was not outside the range of permissible decisions.â