Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits public school systems that receive federal funding from intentionally discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. A school district can be liable for intentional discrimination when it is deliberately indifferent to the harassment of a student. To prevail on a claim of deliberate indifference, a student must show that (1) the school district had the requisite control over the circumstances of the harassment; (2) the harassment was severe and discriminatory; (3) the school district had actual knowledge the harassment was taking place; and (4) the school district responded inadequately to the harassment.

In Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District, No. 10-3640-cv (2d Cir. December 3, 2012) a student, Anthony Zeno, brought suit under Title VI, claiming that the Pine Plains Central School District (the “District”) was deliberately indifferent to his being repeatedly harassed by fellow students. Anthony was a minority student who was subject to numerous racial comments and harassment over the three years he spent at the District’s high school. A jury awarded Anthony $1.25 million in damages, which the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York reduced to $1 million. The District appealed. This month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued its decision affirming the $1 million verdict.

The Second Circuit rejected the District’s argument that it was not deliberately indifferent to the harassment. It found that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that the District’s insufficient response to student harassment of Anthony constituted deliberate indifference to racial discrimination. This evidence included the following: The District had control over the harassment because it occurred on school grounds and during school hours. For three years Anthony was verbally harassed and physically assaulted by peers who made “frequent pejorative references to his skin tone.” The District had actual knowledge of the harassment because school officials received repeated reports of it. Finally, the court found that the District’s response was inadequate because although the District disciplined Anthony’s identified harassers and implemented some non-disciplinary measures, these responses were not enough to remedy the culture of bias at the high school, or to end the harassment.

The court additionally found that $1 million in damages was not excessive because the student “was a teenager being subjected – at a vulnerable point in his life – to three-and-a-half years of racist, demeaning, threatening, and violent conduct” that could have a “profound and long-term impact on Anthony’s life and his ability to earn a living.”