Crispell Middle School located in Pine Bush, situated on the border of Orange and Ulster counties. A lawsuit filed on behalf of five current and former Pine Bush District students alleges anti-Semitism and harassment was allowed to occur for years without intervention from school authorities. Six current and former Pine Bush administrators are defendants in the case, three of whom have worked at Crispell Middle School. Photo by Daniel Case.
November 18, 2013Following a news report in The New York Times earlier this month, the State Police and the Division of Human Rights have launched an investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism and harassment at Pine Bush Central School District.
Last year, three parents filed a lawsuit on behalf of five current and former students of the district, who said they have been subjected to years of discrimination, bullying and harassment for being Jewish, but have been unable to get school officials to take action despite repeatedly reporting the incidents over the course of several years. Defendants in the case include the Pine Bush School District, Pine Bush Board of Education, and six current and former Pine Bush school administrators.
"The reports of rampant anti-Semitic harassment and physical assaults at Pine Bush schools, if true, are deeply disturbing," Cuomo said. "Here in New York state, we have zero tolerance for bigotry or hate based on anyone's religious or ethnic origin Ö The public has a right to know the truth, and parents across the state have the right to know that their children can attend our schools without fear of this reprehensible behavior."
According to the Orange County Executive's Office, Orange County District Attorney Francis Philips said a confidential investigation is underway and confirmed no criminal charges have been brought as a result of the allegations.
Superintendent of the Pine Bush Central School District — which covers portions of Sullivan, Ulster and Orange Counties — Joan Carbone said last week she is confident the governor's investigation will "demonstrate our intolerance for racism and acceptance of diversity in our district."
Incidents of harassment recorded in the court complaint include offensive graffiti, name-calling, Holocaust jokes and physical attacks, which sometimes allegedly took place in the presence of school employees. One student — who has since left the district to be home schooled — recalls a swastika carved into a slide on the elementary school playground, which remained on the school property for more than a year despite requests to the superintendent and principal for its removal. The same student suffered a fractured thumb after being beaten with a hockey stick in gym class.
Swastikas drawn in a Pine Bush District school. Plaintiffs in the pending court case allege swastikas appeared on school property and even on the face of a Jewish student, and say school officials ignored the offensive graffiti despite repeated requests for its removal. Photo by courtesy of Pine Bush School District.
The complaint filed by families of the students, and reviewed by The Legislative Gazette, indicates the school system was repeatedly alerted to the abuse and discrimination, yet took little or no action. However, Pine Bush Superintendent Carbone said in a statement, "The district takes all reports of discrimination or bullying seriously. Our Code of Conduct, Dignity for All Students Policy, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies are up to date and enforced. The district, as well as each individual school, is proactive in providing programs and training about diversity and tolerance for all."
In addition to launching an investigation, the governor wrote a letter to state Education Commissioner John King expressing his concern over the reports of anti-Semitic harassment. Cuomo said he expects the State Education Department to be forthcoming to parents in the district about their knowledge of the allegations and inform them of what steps have been taken to prevent future harassment.
"If these reports are true, I would like to know what, if anything, the SED knew about this situation and if you or your department was aware, when you became aware, and what SED has done to investigate and or address the situation," the letter reads.
Deputy Commissioner of the State Education Department Elizabeth Berlin responded with a letter to the governor's deputy secretary for education saying the SED had only become aware of the allegations through media reports, and the district had not reported any of the alleged incidents. Berlin also said King had directed the New York State Center for School Safety and Orange-Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services to determine "an immediate course of action" to protect students from such behavior.
Early last week, the Orange County Executive's Office met with the members of Orange-Ulster BOCES and the Center for School Safety, Superintendent Carbone and other stakeholders to address the situation and determine a response.
Superintendent of Orange-Ulster BOCES William Hecht said the process is in its investigatory stages, but implementation of new programs or revisions of procedures are potential plans of action. †Hecht said the Center for School Safety and BOCES will be meeting with the district to further assess the situation.
"I'd not heard of these allegations prior to this. We'll be looking at this for as long as it takes," Hecht said. "The County Executive's Office will talk about the matter with the State Education Department and work with the district and New York Center for School Safety."
According to Hecht, a response to the allegations will be based on the Dignity for All Students Act, signed into law in 2010. The legislation requires districts to report incidents of discrimination or harassment to the SED each year. School districts must also establish guidelines for non-discriminatory methods of instruction and counseling and have trained staff available to handle incidents. According to the Pine Bush District's Dignity for All Students Policy, Dignity Act Coordinators — trained to respond to cases of harassment or discrimination —are available at each school.
The New York chapter of the Anti-Defamation League — formed in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism — expressed outrage over the allegations and welcomed the governor's investigation.
"With the litigation still taking place we want to make sure that all claims are factual and see where the lawsuit goes," New York Regional Director of the ADL Evan Bernstein said. "What we're doing right now is working with community leadership and having intimate talks with the Jewish Federation of Orange County to navigate the process and bring up ways to make the situation easier to deal with."
According to Bernstein, the organization is willing to be a resource to any community dealing with issues of hate or bigotry and offer their educational services. While the ADL provides anti-hate education for adults, he said early education is paramount in preventing bigotry. Bernstein suggested the district implement mandatory, recurring training and said the ADL is ready to assist.
"The recent quotes from town residents and former school officials, reflects a community that's deeply infected with anti-Semitism," Bernstein said. "The virus of anti-Semitism can be treated but has to be caught. This incident shows that we have a lot of work to do; people think that anti-Semitism or any kind of hate in general is not there— it is and we need to do a better job of combating it and educating people. Even if it's one incident its one incident too many."
Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County Joyce Waschitz said the organization has been called into the Pine Bush Middle School for complaints of anti-Semitism on two occasions since 2010. The first incident involved a student dressing as Hitler for Halloween. The mother of a Jewish student contacted the organization who performed an anti-bullying project for students and faculty. Another complaint to the federation resulted in an anti-bullying program for the entire student body in October.
"There's always a little something somewhere because that's the kind of world we live in and we can't blame the children because they are a product of their environment," Waschitz said, adding the nearby Kiryas Joel community of Hasidic Jews is a potential reason the community may be more susceptible to anti-Semitism or prejudice.
"The Hasidic community looks and acts different and people may not understand it," Waschitz said. "People look at Kiryas Joel and say 'they're different.'"
The Jewish Federation of Orange County will meet with the Orange County Human Rights Committee Thursday to discuss the allegations and determine a response.
Other administrative bodies have joined Cuomo in investigating the allegations of anti-Semitism in the district. Last November, the Attorney General's Civil Rights Bureau launched an investigation in response to complaints of harassment and discrimination towards Jewish students in the Pine Bush District.
Now, a year later, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman along with Rep. Sean Maloney, D-Cold Spring, said they will pursue a full state and federal response to the allegations. Schneiderman and Maloney also advocated for the Safe School Improvement Act — the first federal law to prevent bullying and harassment in schools — which would provide schools with more resources to protect students from bullying.
The New York Times and other media outlets have also reported the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York has initiated an investigation, but representatives for the office said they could neither confirm nor deny the claim. †
While Bernstein is outraged at the allegations made in the lawsuit, he said the overwhelming response to the incident is good news, and show the anti-Semitic mentality is not accepted.
"Whenever anything happens it creates dialogue and the opportunity for education and for people to learn about each other and recognize they have more in common than not," Bernstein said. "This can be a learning experience for everybody."