New York Civil Liberties Union files lawsuit in U.S. District Court on students behalf.
He’d been picked on in seventh grade for not acting or looking “how a boy should look.” Students threw food at him, called him names, broke his cell phone and iPod, and constantly hurled names his way.
Last year was worse.
When openly gay student Jacob, 14, began dyeing his hair and wearing eye makeup, the name-calling intensified at Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School. In a newly filed federal lawsuit, it’s alleged Jacob faced both physical and verbal harassment. In November 2008, he was pushed down stairs and sprained his ankle, the lawsuit states.
“I had a hard time concentrating at school because I was constantly being harassed,” the teen said in an interview Wednesday. Jacob's full name is not disclosed in the lawsuit. His family would not reveal it Wednesday.
While all this was happening, Jacob and his parents say, Mohawk Central School District officials did nothing.
The lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court on Jacob’s behalf by the New York Civil Liberties Union, claims that district officials did not appropriately respond to relentless harassment, physical abuse and threats of violence. It seeks damages as well as a guarantee that Jacob will be able to attend school in a harassment-free environment.
“We had no other choice to keep our son safe,” said Robert Sullivan, Jacob’s father. “He has the right to go to school and feel safe.”
The district, while not talking about the specifics of the case, is denying the allegations and says the school is a safe environment for Jacob and other students to learn.
“The Mohawk Central School District has acted responsibly in responding to issues of bullying and harassment,” Mohawk Superintendent Joyce Caputo said in a prepared statement. “Our district has not and will not knowingly tolerate discrimination or harassment of its students by anybody.”
Caputo, who is named in the lawsuit, said she could not comment further because the case involved students’ education and disciplinary issues.
The lawsuit also names high school principal Edward Rinaldo and the district’s equal opportunity compliance officer, Cynthia Stocker. It describes multiple instances in which Rinaldo was informed of alleged harassment yet took no action.
NYCLU attorney Corey Stoughton, the lead counsel representing Jacob, said the school district has been deliberately indifferent to what’s been occurring.
“It’s not just the brutality of the harassment, but the escalation of it, and the school continues to do nothing,” Stoughton said.
Rinaldo and Stocker could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The lawsuit also asserts that last December, science teacher Fred Hartmann pulled the teen aside in the hall and told him he should be ashamed of himself for being gay and said something to the effect that Jacob should “hate himself every day until he changed.”
In an interview Wednesday evening, Hartmann said no such conversation ever took place.
“I really don’t know what to say,” said Hartmann, who is now retired. “When I had the boy as a student, he seemed like a very nice individual.”
Hartmann said he learned of Jacob’s sexual orientation only late in the school year and never discussed it with the student.
“I’m a teacher, but I’m not a counselor and I’m certainly not his parent,” Hartmann said. “Those are things that are beyond my pay scale.”
The school district’s attorney, Eric Wilson, with the Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett and Reitz law firm in Syracuse, said the district has acted responsibly.
“We will be vigorously defending the lawsuit,” Wilson said. “There have been issues that the district has dealt with appropriately.”
He declined to talk about specifics of the case.
Jacob said his grades have dropped drastically this year as the harassment has escalated, and he wound up needing to take summer school courses.
He stopped attending school two weeks before the end of the school year when he said a student pulled a knife out in class and threatened to kill him.
“I just left the school and went home because I didn’t feel safe,” said Jacob.
Stoughton said when the harassment began, the response from school officials was that “boys will be boys.”
“This is the most basic responsibility of the district,” Stoughton said. “You can’t educate someone if they don’t feel safe.”