Racial harassment costs Ithaca school district $400K

A school district must pay $400,000 to a family of a black girl who was the subject of daily racial harassment at the hands of white students at an Ithaca middle school, state officials have ruled.

The New York State Division of Human Rights also is requiring a number of reforms from the Ithaca district.

Ithaca Superintendent Judith Pastel did not immediately return phone messages left Wednesday by The Associated Press. The district has 60 days to appeal the decision in state Supreme Court.

In a complaint filed in January 2006, Amelia Kearney claimed the school district failed to act promptly and effectively to protect her daughter Epiphany from the harassment, which happened over five months during the 2005-06 school year while she was a seventh-grader at DeWitt Middle School. The harassment included racially abusive language, tripping, spitting, KKK signs and even threatened gun violence.

As a result of the harassment, Epiphany Kearney's grades and behavior deteriorated. She became insolent, withdrawn and fearful.

The division issued its preliminary recommendations in April 2008. In its final order Friday, it decided to reduce compensation to the Kearneys from $1 million to $400,000.

District officials have repeatedly said measures were taken to protect the girl, but the division found the district "had permitted the discriminatory conduct by failing to take appropriate or meaningful actions to stop these racially motivated attacks despite the opportunity and authority to do so."

The district's "policies against racial harassment and discrimination were a sham" and district staff put the interests of the white male students ahead of the district's own policies, the division concluded. District employees "repeatedly violated (district) policies regarding the investigation and discipline of racial incidents," the division found.

Epiphany Kearney, now 17, is in a different school outside of the district.

"It never was the money that motivated them to pursue this case," said Ray Schlather, the Kearneys' lawyer.

The damages were secondary to the reforms.

"The primary thing - what has always been first and foremost - is the approval of the equitable requirements," Schlather said.

The award will allow Kearney to seek the counseling necessary for her daughter, to seek an educational alternative for Epiphany, and to compensate mother and daughter for the mental anguish, pain and suffering they endured as a result of the district's conduct and indifference.

The district must also put all employees through intensive discrimination training, develop a new discipline policy and design a community program and new staffing plan to address racial tension in the schools.

Lourdes Centeno of the human rights division said the monetary award is "above average" but not a record amount.