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DT v. Somers Central School Dist.

November 24, 2008

DT, INDIVIDUALLY, AND ON BEHALF OF HER CHILD JL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SOMERS CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT; SOMERS CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION; RICHARD CLINCHY, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS PRESIDENT OF SOMERS CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION; JOANNE MARIEN, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS; IRENE PERRELLA, INDIVIDUALLY, AND IN HER CAPACITY AS ACTING SCHOOL PRINCIPAL; LINDA HORISK, INDIVIDUALLY, AND IN HER CAPACITY AS SCHOOL PRINCIPAL; UNKNOWN STUDENTS 1-100; UNKNOWN TEACHERS: 1-100; UNKNOWN ADMINISTRATORS 1-100; AND UNKNOWN LUNCH AIDES 1-100, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conner, Senior D.J.

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff DT*fn1 ("DT") brings this action on behalf of herself and her child, plaintiff JL ("JL" and, together with DT, the "plaintiffs"), pursuant to Title VI, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Equal Protection Clause, New York State Tort Law and New York State Human Rights Law, against Somers Central School District (the "School"); Somers Central School District Board of Education; Richard Clinchy ("Clinchy"), individually and in his capacity as President of Somers Central School District Board of Education; Joanne Marien ("Marien"), individually and in her capacity as Superintendent of Schools; Irene Perrella ("Perrella"), individually and in her capacity as acting school principal; and Linda Horisk ("Horisk"), individually and in her capacity as school principal (collectively, the "defendants"). Plaintiffs allege that JL suffered physical, mental, psychological and emotional harm due to a racially-charged educational environment and that JL was deprived of access to educational programs. Defendants now move for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motion is granted in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed for the purposes of this motion.

I. Ninth-Grade Incidents With CH

JL attended the ninth and tenth grades at Somers Central High School. (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 2.) During the ninth grade, student CH commented that JL was not "black enough." (Id. ¶ 3.) CH made comments to JL more than five times during the ninth grade, although JL does not remember those comments with specificity. (Id. ¶¶ 4-5.) JL did not complain to anyone at his school regarding any of those comments. (Id. ¶ 7.)

II. Tenth-Grade Incidents With CH

In tenth grade, CH crumpled up JL's homework and called him a "nigger" during Mr. Dono's social studies class (the "Social Studies Incident"). (Id. ¶ 8.) JL does not remember the exact words that Mr. Dono used to respond to CH, but believes that Mr. Dono said, "you shouldn't say those things." (JL Dep. at 33.) After class, JL told Mr. Dono that he should have done more. (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10.) JL recalls several other occasions on which CH used the word "nigger." (Id. ¶ 11.)

III. Cafeteria Incident

In October 2004, in the school cafeteria, student MC and student L approached JL's lunch table and shook hands with everyone seated at the table, except JL and JL's friend, KF. (Id. ¶¶ 12-13.) During this encounter, L hit JL in the back of the head approximately twelve times, MC told JL that he was not being a "good nigger" and MC grabbed JL's chair, causing JL to fall to the ground (the "Cafeteria Incident"). (Id. ¶¶ 14-16.)

Before the Cafeteria Incident, JL had several racial incidents with both MC and L, but he never told anyone at the school of those incidents. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18, 20-21.) JL did not have any further racial incidents with either MC or L after the Cafeteria Incident. (Id. ¶¶ 19, 22.)

Immediately following the Cafeteria Incident, JL exited from the cafeteria and entered the boys' bathroom, where he punched a wall. (Id. ¶¶ 23-24.) As a result of punching the wall, JL hurt his hand and went to the school nurse. (Id. ¶ 25.) While at the nurse's office, JL spoke with Student Resource Officer Trooper Todd Williams. (Id. ¶ 26.) Williams testified that, at that time, JL told him that he was upset with some of his friends because they were "getting on his case . . . [not understanding] where [he] came from," which Williams understood to mean that JL believed he was being called a "wannabe." (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 27-28 (quoting Williams Dep. at 15).)*fn2 At some point during JL's conversation with Williams in the nurse's office, JL's mother, DT, arrived. (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 29.) Williams discussed the Cafeteria Incident with DT and asked her if she would like to file a complaint. (Id. ¶ 30.) DT declined to file a complaint at that time. (Id. ¶ 31.)

IV. Investigation Into the Cafeteria Incident

The day after the Cafeteria Incident, DT contacted the school by telephone and spoke with Perrella, the acting school principal. (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 32.) Perrella testified that DT "made general statements about her son's feeling traumatized and . . . [that Perrella] needed to be aware of it and . . . the atmosphere of the school." (Perrella Dep. at 31-32.) Perrella further testified that, after asking DT if there was anything specific that DT wanted her to do, DT answered that she "did not want to press the matter further." (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 33 (citing Perrella Dep. at 32-33).)*fn3

Following that call, Perrella states that she conducted an investigation into the Cafeteria Incident. (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 34.) Perrella spoke separately with Siddhartha Soni, a teacher who was supervising the cafeteria during the time of the incident,*fn4 JL's guidance counselor and Williams. (Id. ¶¶ 36-38.) Perrella learned from Soni that the students involved in the Cafeteria Incident regularly sat and joked around with JL (Perrella also observed JL sitting with the same group of students);*fn5 Perrella learned from JL's guidance counselor that JL had not complained of the Cafeteria Incident; and Perrella obtained from Williams all information that "he had regarding the Cafeteria Incident." (Id. ¶¶ 37-38, 40-41.) Perrella's investigation yielded no indication that MC or L used the word "nigger" during the Cafeteria Incident. (Id. ¶ 42.)*fn6 Perrella discussed the findings of her investigation with principal Horisk. (Id. ¶ 43.) Based on her findings regarding the Cafeteria Incident, Perrella took no disciplinary action against MC or L. (Id. ¶ 44.)

Plaintiffs state that, following the Cafeteria Incident, DT sent a letter dated October 27, 2004 to Perrella, in which DT asked defendants to pledge to protect her son and other students from discrimination and violence. (Hoffman Decl. ¶¶ 45-46 (citing Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J., Ex. A).) Plaintiffs also state that JL wrote a letter to the School on January 7, 2005, in which he stated that he "was a target of a hate crime and still [was] being racial[ly] discriminated against" and asked that the school "write [him] a pledge saying that [it] will protect [him] and [his] rights." (Hoffman Decl. ¶¶ 48-49 (citing Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. Ex. B).) Plaintiffs state that defendants did not respond to these letters. (Hoffman Decl. ¶ 49.) Plaintiffs further state that, on January 30, 2005, DT wrote a letter to the Board of Education "expressing her displeasure and disbelief that [it] had not acknowledged [JL's] letter," but the Board of Education never responded to this letter. (Id. ¶ 50 (citing Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J., Ex. C).)

V. Defendant Perrella's Informal Observations

In addition to conducting her investigation, Perrella avers that she observed JL on a regular basis. (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 45.)*fn7 During those observations, she saw him seated at the lunch table with the same group of students involved in the Cafeteria Incident. (Defs. R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 45-46.) Perrella also observed JL in his classes and, based on her observations, concluded that JL seemed to be "doing well in school and comfortable." (Id. ¶¶ 47-48.)

VI. JL's First Suspension and JL's Participation on the Track Team

Early in the spring 2005 semester, JL was suspended from School for stealing a computer mouse from the school library's computer lab. (Id. ¶ 49.) During his suspension, which he served in school, DT met with Horisk. (Id. ¶ 50.) At that meeting, Horisk suggested that JL participate in school activities, such as track, which might make JL feel more comfortable at school. (Id. ¶ 51.)*fn8 JL "thought it was a good idea" and did join the track team, later stating that he was "happy that he played." (Id. ¶¶ 53-54.)*fn9

VII. Locker Room Theft and JL's Second Suspension

In May 2005, Williams conducted an investigation of a theft that had occurred in a locker room at the school. (Defs R. 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 55-56.) Williams concluded that JL and his friend, fellow student KF, had broken into the lockers using bolt cutters, while student CO kept a lookout. (Id. ¶¶ 56-58.) The lockers contained cell phones, iPods and calculators. (Id. ¶ 59.) Horisk ...


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