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.
“We conclude there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the jury’s finding that the District’s responses to student harassment of Anthony amounted to deliberate indifference to discrimination,” 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 Zeno’s ethnic heritage as a basis to taunt, harass, menace, and physically assault him.
“His peers made frequent pejorative references to his skin tone, calling him a ‘nigger’ nearly every day,” Judge Chin said.
“They also referred to him as ‘homey’ and ‘gangster,’ while making reference to his ‘hood’ and ‘fake rapper bling bling.’ ”
Chin continued: “He received explicit threats as well as implied threats, such as references to lynching.”
In his sophomore year, the threats intensified. According to the opinion, halfway through the year he told school officials: “I’m tired of this – I can’t take any more of it, I have to stop this – This has been going on forever.”
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, Zeno’s lawyer had to prove that district officials were “deliberately indifferent” 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 hadn’t 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 “garden variety” type of damage case. They said the $1 million award was excessive.
The appeals court disagreed. “Anthony was not an adult losing sleep due to workplace stress,” Chin said. “Rather, he was a teenager being subjected – at a vulnerable point in his life – to 3 1/2 years of racist, demeaning, threatening, and violent conduct.”
The judge added: “Given the severity, duration, and egregiousness of Anthony’s unchecked harassment, his [$1 million] award was not outside the range of permissible decisions.”