Racial bullying suit dismissed

SARANAC LAKE – A federal judge has dismissed a multi-million-dollar federal lawsuit filed against the Saranac Lake Central School District by a young girl who said she was bullied and harassed in school because of her race.

U.S. District Court Judge Mae D’Agostino, in a ruling filed Monday in Albany, granted in its entirety a motion for summary judgment sought by the defendants in the case: the school district, its board of education, former Superintendent Gerald Goldman, current board President Debra Lennon and Patricia Kenyon, who was principal of Saranac Lake Middle School when the incidents took place there and is now principal of Bloomingdale Elementary School.

Superintendent Diane Fox, who was hired after the lawsuit was filed, said in a statement emailed to the Enterprise that the decision “vindicates the school district and demonstrates that (it) acted reasonably and in good faith.”

However, the case may not be over yet.

“We have 30 days to appeal, which I’m pretty sure we will be doing,” said the girl’s mother, Amy Oliveras of Saranac Lake.

The legal battle dates to the fall of 2011, when the girl and her parents sued the district for a combined $6 million in compensatory and punitive damages. They said the girl, whose father is Puerto Rican, was “subject to a learning environment hostile toward her on account of her race,” citing incidents that took place over several school years.

One incident in particular brought the alleged harassment into the public eye. On Monday, June 21, 2010, the girl left her backpack behind a secluded outside stairwell at the middle school. She returned later to find its contents 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 because of some confusion about where the slur was written, they didn’t find it and wash it off until June 29, eight days later. Neither school officials nor police were able to determine who rummaged through the backpack or wrote the message.

The girl and her parents claimed the bullying and harassment continued after that incident. The family also said it was subjected to retaliation after filing a notice of claim – specifically that the girl was repeatedly pulled out of class and told to move to another school district.

In Tuesday’s decision, however, D’Agostino said the girl’s complaints of racial harassment “do not rise to the level of severe and pervasive racial hostility required to establish” a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“While the vandalism of (the girl’s) backpack and the writing on the concrete next to it were reprehensible, the incident did not occur because of (the district’s) deliberate indifference,” the judge wrote.

The judge found school officials “properly responded” to the claims of discrimination brought to their attention. Their response to the backpack incident, in particular, was not “clearly unreasonable,” the judge wrote, summarizing the actions school officials took.

She said Cy Ellsworth, the middle school’s dean of students at the time, misunderstood where the slur was written but immediately started investigating who may have been involved. Once Kenyon learned of it, she sent a custodian to locate and remove the writing, but he couldn’t find it. Amy Oliveras left Goldman messages about the incident the Friday after it happened, but he was out of the office that day because of graduation and was also out of office the following Monday. When he returned to work that Tuesday, court papers say he immediately called Oliveras back, learned where the writing was and had a custodian remove it.

School officials responded with a public apology. In a letter to the Enterprise, Goldman, Lennon and board Vice President Darren Dalton admitted school officials had failed in their responsibility to protect the girl and vowed to do better. The district later hired the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity to conduct anti-bias and diversity training with school staff and administrators. The girl was given a school liaison to work with, and each time she complained of a racial incident with another student, school officials investigated it and and disciplined the the student responsible, according to court papers.

“The undisputed evidence demonstrates that in all incidents defendants’ responses to the allegations of harassment were reasonable,” the judge wrote. “The evidence establishes that the claimed incidents were isolated and, when brought to defendants’ attention, the individuals involved engaged in no further harassment of plaintiff.”

In her retaliation claim, the girl and her parents said she was given 12 student referrals over a one-month period after they filed a notice of claim against the district. They called the discipline “a sham” and “a pretext for retaliation.”

Judge D’Agostino, however, found the record “makes clear that plaintiff was disciplined as a result of her own misbehavior.”

Fox, in her statement, said the district was pleased but not surprised by the ruling.

“We did then and we continue to take our responsibility to protect all students seriously,” she wrote. “It is a shame the process took so long. The district was ‘tried and found guilty in the press’ when the incidents were first reported, and we still feel the sting these many years later. Although the ruling clears the district and its employees, it cannot wipe out the scars that are left.”

Goldman’s attorney, John Muldowney, said the former superintendent is “very relieved and satisfied that the court specifically indicated that he acted appropriately.

“The parents testified at the deposition that they were pleased with his response to their circumstances,” Muldowney said, “so we were never really sure why he was personally named in this lawsuit, and the court’s determination really supports the position we’ve taken all along that he’s never done anything that justified him even being named in the lawsuit.”

Josiah Pertz, a lawyer based in Remsen and New York City, represented the girl. He said the case was about her and the family speaking out against racial harassment.

“The lawsuit has been part of a broader process of tackling racial animus in this community, and while students of minority background continue to face hostility, the family is optimistic that more positive change will come from the process of self-evaluation and healing that the community is undertaking,” Pertz wrote.

Amy Oliveras said her daughter continues to attend Saranac Lake schools.

“Just because we didn’t ‘win’ doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “I hope this will help others in the future because (the harassment) continues to happen and will happen again. I’ve seen some changes (in the school district) but not near enough.”

Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.