Editorial : School Bullying is Unacceptable

Posted on by on February 26th, 2012 | 0 Comments »

Editorial : School Bullying is Unacceptable

Published February 26,2012 in the Daily Freeman Online

It is amazing to us how many people believe that intentional cruelty is just a part of life.

More amazing still is the sentiment that, properly viewed, it’s an ennobling experience for the recipient.

Something along the lines of what doesn’t kill you (or psychologically cripple you or make you absolutely miserable) makes you stronger.

A former student at Onteora High School, Liam Kahn, is suing the school district for what he says was the failure of administrators and staff to put an end to years of bullying because he is gay.

Kahn, 18, who recently was appointed deputy supervisor of the town of Woodstock and has interned for U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, says the bullying in school lasted five years and administrators knew about it.

The federal lawsuit claims the bullying began while Kahn was in seventh grade and continued until the harassment forced him to drop out of school last April. He had been scheduled to graduate this June.

The lawsuit asserts that “after classmates found out (Kahn was gay) … students routinely called him queer, faggot and c—sucker in the hallways and elsewhere on school property.”

“When (Kahn) was in eighth grade, in an attempt to halt the continuous bullying, (he) attempted to start up a Gay-Straight Alliance,” his attorney wrote. “However, despite (his) attempt to raise awareness among his fellow students, students regularly (told) him that ‘bullying is part of growing up, you’re being a wimp.’ These comments were made in the presence of teachers and hall monitors.”

The suit states former middle school Principal Gale Kavanagh did discipline students who harassed Kahn, including suspending one student who later was arrested by state police, but some teachers failed to intervene when witnessing harassment.

Kahn claims he left school “suffering from anxiety, frustration, worry and feelings of victimization by peers.”

Of course, every lawsuit looks like a slam dunk before the defendant formally responds. That’s a good reason to suspend judgment until the case has been litigated. Barring pretrial settlement, each side will presents its case and a jury will parse the evidence and apply the law.

But while the facts of this case remain simple allegations at this point, what should not be at issue is whether the sustained bullying of a student — on any grounds — is just something a school district and its charges have to live with.

It isn’t.

For one thing, the idea that bullying is a rite of passage is poppycock. Sustained efforts to belittle others should be unacceptable in all walks of society. (The possible exception is the well-ordered, studiously theatrical and even-handed treatment in military boot camp, where all recruits know they are vermin, until the predetermined moment when they magically are not.) Bullying has no place in a marriage, in the broader family, in the workplace or in schools, including athletic teams.

For another, the law says it’s up to schools and employers to keep their dominions free of harassment.

That was certainly the case in the Pine Plains Central School District. A federal jury in 2010 found the district had failed to protect student Anthony Zeno from racial taunting and harassment.

Zeno, who is multiracial, was subjected to “relentless racial harassment,” beginning in January 2005, when his family moved to Pine Plains from Long Island, according to Zeno’s attorney, Stephen Bergstein, who also is representing Liam Kahn.

The district didn’t so much contest the harassment as assert its efforts to discipline students and present diversity training met its legal obligation.

An all-white jury thought otherwise and awarded $1.25 million to Zeno, a figure later reduced by a judge to $1 million.

And it was the case last year, whena federal jury found the city of Kingston and its former supervisor of public works guilty of failing to provide a workplace free of sexual harassment.

In short, we’ll see about the facts in the Liam Kahn case against the Onteora Central School District. But the principle on which it is based — that school districts are responsible for providing a learning environment free of harassment — should be beyond question.

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