Alleging that he “endured a hostile educational environment on account of his sexual orientation,” town of Woodstock deputy Supervisor and former Onteora student Liam Kahn, 18, has filed a Civil Rights lawsuit against the Onteora Central School District and individually against High School Principal Lance Edelman and Vice Principal Jess Robertson.
In the suit, Kahn seeks compensatory damages due to “pain and suffering resulting from defendants’ deliberate indifference,” and punitive damages against the “individual defendants.” In the document, obtained from Kahn’s lawyer Stephen Bergstein, Kahn alleges gender-based bullying that began in 2006 after Kahn, then in Middle School came out as “openly gay.” The suit states, “Defendants were deliberately indifferent to routine stereotypic discrimination and bullying that plaintiff sustained, causing him to withdraw from school.” Kahn dropped out of school when he was a high school junior in 2011. He was due to graduate in June, 2012.
During a phone interview Bergstein said, “What makes this case unique is it involves gay harassment. Usually it involves race or sexual harassment.” He also said he wanted to clarify a “misconception” he has read on message boards provided by other newspapers carrying the story. “It’s not bullying that’s illegal, it’s the failure for the school to respond,” he said, “People should know that.”
The ten-page report lists throughout the five years, teachers, counselors and principals looked on as Kahn was continually getting harassed in the classrooms and hallways.
The suit details numerous incidents during the 2006-2007 school year, including those of a student who used anti-gay language (also anti-Semitic), punched him in school and left death threats on Kahn’s MySpace social network page. That student, the suits says, was suspended for a year by then middle school principal Gayle Kavanagh, and he was issued an Order of Protection by the Family Court.
Kavanagh, who Kahn said in the suit “always acted to protect” him, retired that same year. She was replaced by Paul Schwartz and according to the suit, was not as supportive and “did not mete out any discipline against the offending students and the school did not put in place any comprehensive programs to top the systemic harassment of plaintiff because of his sexual orientation.”
In 2007 Kahn was in eighth grade and, according to the suit, tried to start up a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). Despite his attempt to “raise awareness among his fellow students” Kahn, the suit says, was called “fag,” “faggot,” and “queer.”
According to school district minutes, the following year in 2008 the school board approved the GSA. Kahn was as a member from its inception in 2008 and was interviewed by Woodstock Times in April 2010 when the GSA participated in “Take Constance to the Prom.” The event was held at Bearsville Theater for Constance McMillen, an 18-year old from Mississippi who was denied the right to attend the prom with her girlfriend. In the story, Kahn was asked to compare the Mississippi school policy with Onteora and he said, “I don’t think they would deliberately do something like that to us.”
Onteora district superintendent Phyllis Spiegel-McGill would not comment on the suit nor on its allegations.
In the autumn of 2010 the district’s anti-bullying policy was updated to include cyber-bullies through social networks and texting. This includes bullying that takes place among students to reach outside of school property. To raise awareness on what cyber-bullying is and how parents and students can protect themselves, the district held a public forum November 2010 featuring Sarah White a case manager from the NYS Department of criminal justice.
Ongoing clubs and activities that promote tolerance and anti-bully, in addition to the Gay Straight Alliance include the High School Diversity Club/Amnesty club. Additionally the Middle School participates in Diversity Day a celebration of different races, cultures and promotes tolerance.
The High School also participates in the annual Day of Silence, where students will choose to spend the day in silence as a way to recognize students throughout the country who have committed suicide as a result of bullying.
In the April, 2010 Woodstock Times story on the “Take Constance To The Prom” event, students were quoted on the subject.
“I do see a lot of kids getting bullied at Onteora based on what they wear or who they are, it’s not only about being openly gay,” said Rachael Kellogg, at that time. Student Paula Dutcher compared differences. “There are some close minded folks in our school but for the most part, our community is supportive.” Kellogg agreed. “There are people who will tell you that being gay is wrong, but the administration has never made it something that is wrong.”
According to the suit, by the 2009-2010 school year, with Kahn in 10th grade, “the harassment became more poisonous.” Kahn often complained to various counselors and Robertson. Eventually in 2010 the environment became so hostile for Kahn, the suit alleges, he began to “engage in the practice of ‘cutting,’” himself. He received therapeutic counseling outside of the school in which the report states that he was diagnosed as suffering from depression as a result of the bullying. The school social worker also reported that Kahn suffered from “anxiety, frustration, worry and feelings of victimization by peers.”
Sometime in 2010 a conference was held with the parents, Edelman, Robertson and other school employees. According to the suit, Edelman said he believed the harassment wasn’t happening explaining the he had “spies,” in the form of students who watch and report events.
Once home instruction was approved, in November 2010, Kahn deemed it insignificant since he was “forced to drop Spanish, trigonometry and science because he was told that in-class participation was required.” His Advanced Placement teachers were equally not supportive.
Kahn returned to school part time in January 2011, only to have a piece of ice thrown at his head. According to Kahn, Robertson witnessed the attack but took “inadequate steps,” to identify the student. By April 2011 Kahn was “no longer able to tolerate the anti-gay harassment and bullying,” that he withdrew from school.
At a school board meeting that same month, Edelman gave a presentation on school security and prevention measures the administration was taking against bullying and illegal activities. As a result the district purchased 50 surveillance cameras that would soon be placed in and around school property. Edelman said, “I have received quite a few requests from parents by putting up cameras, especially in the area of bullying and harassment.” He added that the Gay Straight Alliance gave a “very strong endorsement,” to the installation of the cameras.
Kahn has since received his GED and attends Ulster Community College. He volunteers for Congressman Maurice Hinchey and serves the appointed deputy supervisor for the Town of Woodstock. Kahn seeks a trial by jury and Bergstein said the trial is a “couple years away.”
Bergstein has also represented a student who attended Pine Plains School district and allegedly endured bullying based on his race. The accusation — indifference from employees — resulted in jury finding a violation of his civil rights. The family was awarded $1.2 million dollars by the jury, an award that was later reduced to $1 million.
Civil rights complaint
One complaint in a grievance filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union to the United State Department of Education Office For Civil Rights on behalf of two students, one of whom was Kahn, from the Onteora School District alleging that the school failed to take appropriate action to address sexual harassment regarding “Student 1,” and gender-based sexual harassment based on “Student 2” (confirmed as Liam Kahn by his father Arthur Kahn) was dropped due to “insufficient evidence.” In a second complaint in the same grievance alleging that the district failed to adopt and publish grievance procedures on “sexual discrimination and/or sexual harassment,” the state Department of Education Office for Civil Rights determined the district must revise its “Notice of non-discrimination,” to include “basis of sex,” among other criteria such as race or disability, and revise its grievance procedure to include sexual harassment. The resolution mandates staff training that will include training on the new revised procedures and information on what constitutes gender based harassment and sexual harassment. The district is in compliance and on track to meet certain milestones by April of 2012. ++