(CN) – An upstate New York school district must pay $250,000 in damages for failing to stop a group of white students, self-styled as rednecks, from repeatedly harassing a black girl on the school bus, a state appeals court ruled.
Amelia Kearney complained that her 12-year-old daughter was racially insulted and threatened by the group of white students on the bus who called themselves “Red Necks.”
The girl testified that the taunting made her feel “worthless” and ashamed of her race. She also said that when he yelled back at the boys on one occasion, the bus driver told her to “find another way home.”
After an investigation by the New York State Division of Human Rights, an administrative law judge ruled that the Ithaca City School District had violated the Human Rights Law by failing to stop the harassment.
In addition to awarding damages to Kearney and her daughter, the judge ordered the district to adopt new administrative policies and training procedures.
On appeal in 2009, the Tompkins County Supreme Court vacated the judgment, ruling that the Division of Human Rights did not have jurisdiction over the school district.
Kearney and the Department of Human Rights appealed next, and a majority of five-justice panel for the Third Department New York Appellate Division in Albany reinstated the first judgment.
Justice Leslie Stein wrote that the school district failed to persuade the majority that it did not qualify under the law as an “education corporation or association” as defined by the General Construction Law.
Such an interpretation of the law would only extend human-rights protections to “the relatively minuscule percentage of students whose families can afford to send them to private, non-religious schools, relegating public school students to other more onerous and/or less comprehensive remedies,” Stein wrote.
“In our view, such a result is so clearly contrary to the express purpose of the Human Rights Law that resort to the General Construction Law is inappropriate and unreasonable,” the decision states.
The school district should have imposed harsher penalties than the two- or- three-day suspensions and should have banned the boys from the bus, especially in light of the assistant principal’s testimony that there was a “racial tidal wave” at the school that year and that the girl had been threatened with gun violence, according to the majority.
While the appellate division upheld the $200,000 award to Kearney’s daughter, it reduced the mother’s award to $50,000 because she submitted “comparatively sparse proof” of her emotional distress.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Robert Rose said a public school district is not an “educational corporation” under the applicable state law.
A school district is a municipal corporation and that the “education corporation” described in the law would include post-secondary institutions and trade schools, Rose wrote.
“Had the Legislature intended to include school districts, within the provisions of (the law), it certainly knew how to do so,” he added.