The Pine Bush Central School District of New York has agreed to pay $4.48 million to five Jewish students who filed a 2012 lawsuit, saying they were intimidated by swastika graffiti, “white power chants,” Holocaust jokes and even physical beatings.
The settlement, announced last Thursday, also requires “significant reform” in the schools to combat anti-Semitic and racial bullying.
The Washington, D.C.,-based legal group, Public Justice, which served as co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said the “repeated” bullying went on for years, causing social isolation, depression and post-traumatic stress.
One female student who was part of the lawsuit, said when she reported bullying to school officials, they did nothing, so her mother turned to homeschooling out of fear for her safety.
“I feel as though I lost a large part of my childhood,” Taylor Eccleston, 17, told NBC News. “I felt alienated; I was uncomfortable to go anywhere in my own town. It got to the point that I felt I had no friends in my neighborhood that I could trust.”
Former student Dakota Cohen, 20, who also was part of the lawsuit, says he is relieved to have “closure.” Cohen, who is studying to be a filmmaker, tells some of his story to NBC News contributor Susan Donaldson James:
Dakota Cohen's Account:
These reforms are a good start, but it’s the least the school can do. I am happy for the Jewish students who go there that there will be some refuge from the harassment, but there is still so much more we can do to protect children from bullying.
I wish people could understand the tenacity of the harassment and the harm it does. I’ve been slapped in the face and I’ve been punched in the stomach. I’ve been tossed around and spat at. I’ve had kids dump my backpack onto the ground and had my personal belongings destroyed.
When I tell people anecdotes about what I went through, they are met with awe, like I come from an imaginary place. People are surprised by the severity. But I think insensitivity and bullying in the schools is also a national problem. We just need to pay attention.
At my school, there was a hostile environment for everybody. Derogatory words for African Americans and gays are used constantly in the hallways.
"It wasn’t just on the playground and in the cafeteria -- it was everywhere. It even happened in class when the teachers were around."
The bullying started my first year in third grade and continued my entire career in school. It progressively got worse over time and by middle school I was made fun of heavily for being Jewish and overweight. I had coins thrown at me and asked to go retrieve them. I was called, “dirty Jew, stupid Jew, kike.”
It wasn’t just on the playground and in the cafeteria -- it was everywhere. It even happened in class when the teachers were around. A lot of the physical violence happened on the school bus, where there wasn’t a lot of supervision. The problem was, the district put the middle school students on the same bus as the high school ones.
Friends didn’t really come to my defense. I feel like it’s a common phenomenon when you see someone getting picked on aggressively. Kids don’t want to step in and be a new target.
Once, I walked into the bathroom and there was a giant swastika about a foot in diameter written in pencil on the wall. I alerted the teacher to it. Within a week, it was back up again.
This happened every day and when you are this young -- this is your entire life. You don’t have the hindsight or foresight to know things will be different. I thought this is what people were like, what the rest of my life would be like. An adult can look back and say, “it gets better,” but a child is incapable of seeing that.
Life was just so unbearable. I thought about suicide, but I never acted on it. I hoped that when I went to sleep, I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.
My parents were very supportive, but it was hard to communicate what was going on. My father had a whole discussion with the principal in middle school and they were active about it for a bit. But I didn’t really see any progress and no one wants their parents to fight their battles for them. You don’t want to appear weak or like a “tattle tale” to other kids.
We have been lying to ourselves about the severity of the problem. People say just move past it -- that bullying is a rite of passage. Move on with your lives. It’s a difficult thing to admit you are a victim, and even more difficult to be told to move on, or even worse: that you are lying.
When people started talking about this legal case, I kept hearing, “They are doing it for the money.”
"What if another student suffered what I suffered and then took their own life, instead of just contemplating it?"
The thing that hurts the most about that sentiment is I never wanted to do this. But my sister goes to this school and when I found out that she had gone through some of the same things, it clicked. I had to do something. It was more of an obligation.
What if another student suffered what I suffered and then took their own life, instead of just contemplating it?
I don’t want to attach heroism to what I am doing. It’s the least I can do. If something is wrong, you have to fix it and you can’t wait for someone else or it will never be fixed. It’s just too easy to say it didn’t happen and hope it goes away.
A lot of times when victims speak up and make their stories public, they want a cathartic process with others who have gone through the same thing. That’s not the reason I agreed to an interview. My main focus is to reach those who are apathetic and indifferent, because their support is so desperately needed. Change will require the cooperation of everyone.
I have no malevolence toward the people who did those things to me. I don’t hate the people who bullied me. They have also been wronged by the education system. They shouldn’t just be learning math and English, but how to be human, which means empathizing and coexisting with others. And that starts with acknowledging we have a problem.