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Saturday, April 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Anti-Semitism May Nail Upstate N.Y. School

MANHATTAN (CN) - Unlike the nearby Hasidic enclave of Kiryas Joel, the overwhelmingly white hamlet of Pine Bush in Orange County has a sparse Jewish population and has been jolted by allegations of shocking anti-Semitism in its grade schools.

Pine Bush's Central School District must now face a federal trial for allegedly tolerating white power chants, swastika carvings and anti-Jewish harassment among students, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas found Tuesday.

The 76-page order recounts how seventh-grade student D.C. claims to have endured bus rides to Crispell Middle School where children sang a "song about stomping the niggers and killing the Jews and washing off their blood."

The children also allegedly chanted and sang those lyrics in the cafeteria, he said.

The first time D.C. found a "giant swastika" in the bathroom, his science teacher allegedly had it removed after he complained. D.C.'s Spanish teacher allegedly did nothing, however, when a new one appeared "a couple days" later.

Pine Bush students sometimes broke from the "countless" ethnic slurs to gave "Hitler salutes" and use crematoria imagery, D.C. claims.

"When D.C. was in ninth grade, another student 'would constantly berate [D.C],' telling him that D.C.'s 'ancestors died in the Holocaust,' calling D.C. 'ashes,' and pantomiming the blowing of dust off his hands while telling D.C. that he was 'just ashes,'" the court's summary of the contested allegations continues.

For T.E., anti-Semitic slurs and Nazi taunts allegedly followed her from elementary school.

After T.E.'s classmates showed her swastikas that they drew in their planners, her mother complained to a teacher identified in the order as "Mrs. E," who allegedly reported the issue to Pine Bush Elementary's principal Steve Fisch.

"What's the big deal?" Fisch allegedly replied. "They didn't aim [the swastikas] towards [T.E.], they were just writing in their book."

Though Fisch, a defendant in the lawsuit, denied in court that he made this remark, he apparently did not deny a glib reply to an April 19, 2010, email that Mrs. E sent him with a picture of a swastika on a slide and reports of students "'do[ing] something...' to celebrate 'the anniversary of Hitler's birthday,'" the order shows.

Fisch suggested in a reply email that "we go out and look at [the swastika graffiti] on cannabis culture day," which coincides with Hitler's birthday on April 20.

Like Fisch, Pine Bush Central School District's ex-superintendent, co-defendant Phillip Steinberg, is Jewish, and both men have fended off accusations of deliberate indifference by pointing to their ethnic heritage.

For Judge Karas, however, the "mere fact that several [Pine Bush] officials are Jewish" does not settle the matter.

The ruling notes that Steinberg allegedly refused to pay for a bus taking two of the students to another district.

Crispell assistant principal Eric Winter, the final co-defendant, allegedly brushed off the district's anti-Semitism problem as "something that's inbred in the community."

On one of her bus rides to school, T.E. reported seeing a student drawing a picture and saying "it is a Hasidic Jew, so let's shove pennies in his mouth."

Another girl, O.C., recounted depressingly similar tales persisting from elementary school to Pine Bush High School.

While Fisch and other administrators claim to have dealt with harassment issues by calling assemblies and disciplining offending students, Karas found that a jury could find these measures inadequate.

"A reasonable jury could find that, while the district may have taken some steps to combat the culture of anti-Semitism in its schools, the handful of assemblies - which addressed only students in T.E. and O.C.'s grade - could not have plausibly changed the anti-Semitic sentiments of the student harassers, many of whom were not classmates of T.E. and O.C.," the opinion states. "These assemblies also did nothing to target anti-Semitism among the students who harassed D.C."

Karas allowed the students to press all claims against the district and board of education. They may also bring Fisch, Steinberg and Winter to trial in their individual capacities, the judge ruled.

Adele Kimmel, representing the students for the Washington-based group Public Justice, called the court's opinion "basically a wholesale rejection of the arguments made by the school district.

"And it sends a strong message to all schools that they can't ignore rampant harassment," Kimmel added.

Now all teenagers, two of her three clients have graduated high school, and all of them seek damages for emotional injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, Kimmel said.

"They're really not in good shape," she commented.

Though the ruling came as a disappointment to the school district, Superintendent Joan Carbone said that the trial will allow it to prove that the allegations of anti-Semitism were properly handled.

"Stakeholders of the Pine Bush Central School District continue to advocate for a learning environment of tolerance and acceptance for all students," Carbone said in a statement. "We have strengthened our partnerships with outside agencies including the Anti-Defamation League and the Weisenthal Center to enhance the education of our school community regarding bias and discrimination.

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