Saranac Lake school district wants racial bullying suit dismissed

SARANAC LAKE – Lawyers for the Saranac Lake Central School District are asking a judge to throw out a multi-million-dollar federal lawsuit filed against the district by a young girl who was bullied and harassed in school because of her race.

Motions for summary judgment were filed May 3 by attorneys representing the district, its board of education, school board President Debra Lennon, school Superintendent Gerald Goldman and Middle School Principal Patricia Kenyon. School officials are seeking dismissal of the case brought by the girl and her parents, Amy and Hiram Oliveras of Saranac Lake.

Filed in September 2011, the lawsuit seeks a combined $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages. It alleges that the girl, whose father is Puerto Rican, was “subjected to a learning environment hostile toward her on account of her race,” citing incidents that took place over several school years.

The incidents, according to court papers, started in the 2008-09 school year when the girl began attending Petrova Elementary School as a fifth-grader. In one incident, a male student allegedly called the girl “a Muslim” and asked whether her uncles were going to blow up the twin towers again. The incident was reported to school officials and the student was suspended.

Later that year, another fifth-grader allegedly posted a racial slur on the girl’s MySpace page and said she should commit suicide. The girl’s family says the incident was reported to Petrova Principal Josh Dann, although Dann said in a legal affidavit that he had no recollection or record to support that he had been informed of it.

The harassment allegedly continued when the girl moved up to the Saranac Lake Middle School for the 2009-10 school year, according to court papers. Students allegedly called her racially charged names, threatened to beat her up and touched her breast and thigh inappropriately.

The incident that brought the alleged harassment into the public eye took place on June 21, 2010, when the girl found that the contents of her backpack, which she had left in a secluded outside stairwell, had been smashed and a racial slur had been written with her deodorant on the concrete underneath the stairwell. School officials were notified the next day, but according to court filings, they were confused about where the slur was written and didn’t find it and wash it off until June 29, seven days after they were notified. Neither school officials nor police were able to determine who was responsible for the vandalism.

That incident, and the revelation that the girl had been subjected to other incidents of racially charged bullying, went public and sparked a firestorm of criticism against the school district. School officials responded with an apology, admitting in a letter to the Enterprise that they had failed in their responsibility to protect the girl and vowed to do better.

But the girl and her parents claim the bullying and harassment continued. The family also alleges it was subjected to retaliation after filing a notice of claim, namely that they were told to relocate to another school district. They also said the girl was repeatedly taken out of class to speak to school officials.

In its dismissal motion, Bartlett, Pontiff, Stewart & Rhodes, the Glens Falls law firm representing the district, the school board and Lennon argued that the girl and her parents haven’t proved that the district “intentionally discriminated” against the girl on the basis of her race or that school officials were “deliberately indifferent” to any harassment. The district’s lawyers say the girl’s complaints, a half-dozen incidents over four years, don’t rise to the level of “severe and pervasive racial hostility.

“That these incidents happened at all is unfortunate,” their filing reads. “We hope that our children will grow in an atmosphere free from such bigotry. The incidents do not, however, rise to a constitutional deprivation. … While the vandalism of (the girl’s) backpack was abhorrent, it did not occur because of defendant’s deliberate indifference.”

The school district’s lawyers also said school officials responded properly to the discrimination claims, before the backpack incident, that were brought to their attention. As for the backpack incident, “at most the district failed to immediately locate and clean the graffiti,” the motion reads. “This failure, however, did not make the (girl) vulnerable to further harassment and was not deliberately indifferent.”

Bartlett, Pontiff, Stewart & Rhodes also says there is no proof that school officials retaliated against the girl and her parents after they filed a notice of claim, saying a counselor suggested the girl changing school districts “as simply one of many strategies the district and parents could employ to make (the girl) feel comfortable in school.” The motion also says any disciplinary action brought against the girl after the notice of claim was filed was justified by her improper behavior.

The law firm notes that the district took steps to help the girl and combat harassment and discrimination in the schools. It strengthened its anti-bullying policies and procedures and brought in the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity to conduct anti-bias and diversity training with school staff and administrators. It also says Lennon wasn’t involved in any actions or discipline of the girl, and shouldn’t be held liable.

Similar dismissal motions were filed by John Muldowney of Saranac Lake, the attorney Goldman hired to represent himself, and Kenyon’s own lawyer, Stephen J. Rehfuss of Latham.

One of the attorneys representing the girl and her parents, Theresa M. Girouard of Rome, asked the judge handling the case last week for more time to respond to the dismissal motions. The judge agreed, setting June 17 as the response deadline. A settlement conference in the case is also scheduled for this Friday in Albany.

The girl is also represented by A.J. Bosman of Children’s Rights Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to indigent children.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or