November 7, 2013
The swastikas, the students recalled, seemed to be everywhere: on walls, desks, lockers, textbooks, computer screens, a playground slide — even on a student’s face.
A picture of President Obama, with a swastika drawn on his forehead, remained on the wall of an eighth-grade social studies classroom for about a month after a student informed her teacher, the student said.
For some Jewish students in the Pine Bush Central School District in New York State, attending public school has been nothing short of a nightmare. They tell of hearing anti-Semitic epithets and nicknames, and horrific jokes about the Holocaust.
They have reported being pelted with coins, told to retrieve money thrown into garbage receptacles, shoved and even beaten. They say that on school buses in this rural part of the state, located about 90 minutes north of New York City and once home to a local Ku Klux Klan chapter president, students have chanted “white power” and made Nazi salutes with their arms.
The proliferation and cumulative effect of the slurs, drawings and bullying led three Jewish families last year to sue the district and its administrators in federal court; they seek damages and an end to what they call pervasive anti-Semitism and indifference by school officials.
The district — centered in Pine Bush, west of Newburgh, and serving 5,600 children from Orange, Sullivan and Ulster Counties — is vigorously contesting the suit. But a review of sworn depositions of current and former school officials shows that some have acknowledged there had been a problem, although they denied it was widespread and said they had responded appropriately with discipline and other measures.
“There are anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred that we need to address,” John Boyle, Crispell Middle School’s principal, said in a deposition in April.
In 2011, when one parent complained about continued harassment of her daughter and another Jewish girl, Pine Bush’s superintendent from 2008 to 2013, Philip G. Steinberg, wrote in an email, “I have said I will meet with your daughters and I will, but your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.”
Mr. Steinberg, who, along with two other administrators named as defendants, is Jewish, described the lawsuit in recent interviews as a “money grab.” He contended that the plaintiffs had “embellished” some allegations.
Nonetheless, reports of anti-Semitism have persisted, with at least two recent complaints made to the Jewish Federation of Greater Orange County.
The New York Times has reviewed about 3,500 pages of deposition testimony by parents, children and school administrators, which were provided by the families’ lawyers on the condition that the identities of the children, some of whom are still enrolled, be protected. Limited redactions were also made to protect student privacy.
The children, in their depositions, accuse at least 35 students, who are identified by their initials, of carrying out anti-Semitic acts; other offenders are identified less specifically.
Whatever the number of students involved in such activity, its impact was felt by the Jewish children, said Ilann M. Maazel, a lawyer for the families. “There were multiple children who just did not feel safe going to school day after day,” he said.
A Hostile Environment
In 2008, T.E., then a fifth grader at Pine Bush Elementary School, told her mother that two boys had made drawings in school that she did not understand, adding, “I think it was something bad.”
The mother, Sherri E., 48, asked her daughter to draw what she had seen, and realized it was a swastika. The mother testified that during a subsequent meeting, the elementary school principal at the time, Steve Fisch, agreed to talk with the boys but added: “What’s the big deal? They didn’t aim it towards her.” Mr. Fisch, in his deposition, denies saying that.
Not long afterward, the mother said, one of the boys called T.E. “Jew” on the bus and made an offensive gesture toward her and her daughter.
Sherri E. withdrew her daughter from Crispell Middle School last year, and is now educating her at home.
Some of the affected students saw their grades suffer, and felt socially isolated and depressed, the depositions show. One said he contemplated suicide. The swastikas, drawn or carved onto school property, or even constructed by students out of pipe cleaners, caused much of the anxiety. Sometimes they were accompanied by messages like “Die Jew,” the children testified.
“I actually started to hate myself for being Jewish,” D.C., a Pine Bush High School graduate who now attends college, said in an interview. He recalled that around the time of the Jewish holidays, teachers would ask if there were Jewish students in the class. “I learned very, very quickly not to raise my hand,” he said.
D.C., now 18, testified that he was “overwhelmed” by the number of swastikas he saw. In eighth grade, he said, he reported one that was about a foot in diameter, which he found in a bathroom; it was removed, but it reappeared quickly. He testified that he stopped reporting swastikas because “nobody was doing anything about them.”
His sister, O.C., now 15, testified about a more direct message from a sixth grader who formed his hand into the shape of a gun and “said he was killing Jews.”
In seventh grade, O.C. said, she saw a girl holding her hands up to hide a swastika on her face. The girl explained that a student had restrained her while another drew the insignia; the school said it had disciplined the two students.
O.C. said she heard slurs like Christ killer, stupid Jew, dirty Jew, disgusting Jew. “Jew was kind of an insult,” she explained.
Her father, David C., an adjunct instructor at Orange County Community College, recalled telling his daughter’s teachers that she lacked focus because of the harassment and swastikas. He had even stumbled upon one, he testified, describing how he saw a “small swastika on one of the stalls” in a school bathroom.
The children testified about hearing crude jokes about the Holocaust and the killing of Jews. “How do you get a Jewish girl’s number? Lift up her sleeve,” went one. D.C. remembered a student telling him that his ancestors had died in the Holocaust. The student then blew on his flattened hand, and said, “You are just ashes.”
“Every day at the high school,” D.C. testified, “I would go in, and I would just have the worst day of my life.”
‘So Many’ Accused
Mr. Steinberg said in his deposition that his challenge as superintendent was that “so many” students were being accused of anti-Semitic behavior.
“The issue is not three students doing it all the time; the question is if you have 30 students doing it,” he said. “How do you undo the years of inbred prejudice?”
At the edge of town, a big red barn is painted with a patriotic yellow ribbon. Across the street, a yard decorated with military equipment has a bomb painted with the words, “God Bless Our Troops.” Billboards advertise 4-H clubs; stores sell tractors, snow blowers and soft-serve ice cream.
Most people interviewed — from a bagel shop owner to McDonald’s clerks, adults and teenagers alike — said they had not heard of the swastikas. But some said they were aware of bullying or hate-fueled teasing, including a middle-school student who said she knew a boy who had drawn swastikas on the back of their school.
“It’s just hate,” she said outside after school last month. “And just being kids.”
At that point, a pickup truck pulled up nearby, and a man emerged. The man, John Barker, 42, a mechanic, cautioned that “everybody watches out for everybody.” When asked about the presence of Jewish families, he blurted out, “We don’t want them in our town.”
“They can’t drive, for number one — and they already have Sullivan County. Who really wants them here? They don’t belong here.”
Bullies on the Bus
The bus was a particularly difficult place for Jewish students. On April 19, 2010, T.E., then in sixth grade, told her mother that students on her bus had made Nazi salutes and discussed how to celebrate the anniversary of Hitler’s birthday, which was the next day.
Sherri E., who knew the date was also the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, said she reported the episode to school officials, telling them her daughter would stay home the next morning.
No violence followed, but the harassment continued, T.E. said in an interview. “I finally said, ‘I’m not going back to school,’ ” she said. She withdrew in early 2012.
D.R. was in sixth grade when a school-sponsored ski trip turned ugly. A boy on the bus ride home asked if he was Jewish, and when D.R. answered yes, a group of students began taunting him with slurs, he testified. One boy then repeatedly punched him in the stomach “until I was ready to throw up,” D.R. said in his account.
His father, Jerrold R., 52, an aircraft leasing executive, testified that his son cried uncontrollably that night. “That was the worst experience he had ever been through,” he said.
Pine Bush said it had disciplined the student who led the episode, requiring him to write an apology note and contacting his mother.
D.R., now 16 and a junior, testified that early this year, he saw four or five Pine Bush students goose-stepping and high-fiving with Nazi salutes in the hallway.
The school district has sharply disputed claims that swastikas were “everywhere” in the high school, and said it responded diligently to reports of anti-Semitic behavior. Laura Wong-Pan, a lawyer for the district, said Pine Bush had taken many steps to address “the plaintiffs’ complaints and deal with bullying in general,” like disciplining students in a manner that was “reasonably calculated to prevent a recurrence.”
Ms. Wong-Pan said that in some cases, that “included counseling, detentions, suspensions, letters to parents and meetings.”
She said the district had also held antibullying assemblies and classroom discussions; brought Holocaust survivors and experts to address students on issues like bullying, anti-Semitism and tolerance; and provided staff training on such topics.
Trouble Seeking Help
The families say their conversations with school officials led nowhere. They were told that their complaints were isolated, and were not informed that other families had raised similar issues.
T.E. testified that when she was in seventh grade, she and O.C. were reporting anti-Semitic graffiti and other behavior to a Crispell administrator, who discouraged them at one point. “We would write it down and bring it to him, usually at the end of the week,” she said. “He told us we were now just looking for trouble and that we were causing our own problems.”
Jerrold R. said that he once asked an assistant principal why his older son, A.R., then in middle school, was disciplined for defending himself against a student who had grabbed him after taunting him about the Holocaust.
The school official replied, “ ‘We have a zero-tolerance policy on fighting,’ ” the father recalled.
“And I said, ‘How about a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism?’ ”
In a court filing, the families cited eight cases of slurs or coin-throwing in which one child received two hours of detention, one was counseled, and six received no discipline.
“I was lied to, to my face, repeatedly, by the schools,” Jerrold R. recalled in an interview. The assurances, he said, “kept us from doing something that would have protected our kids, taking a more aggressive stance.”
Two parents testified about meeting with Mr. Steinberg in spring 2011. “We told him about the swastikas,” David C. said. “We told him about the name-calling. We told him about the insidious Holocaust jokes. We showed him the pictures of four or five or six of the swastikas that the girls had taken. We told him about being singled out and being bullied for being Jewish.”
Sherri E. testified that Mr. Steinberg once told her how his own son had experienced anti-Semitism, leading him to move his family and send him to a different school. “My response to him was, ‘Well, in a better economy that might be nice, but I can’t sell my house and move from here right now,’ ” she said. “Something needs to be taken care of at the school level.”
History of Racism
Mr. Steinberg, 65, who retired as superintendent in the summer, worked as a teacher, principal and superintendent in New York City’s schools before taking the Pine Bush position in 2008.
He said in his deposition that when he was being considered for the post, members of the Pine Bush school board cautioned him about the community’s history of anti-Semitism and Klan activity, and that it “was not a Jewish area.” He said his hiring was an example of how far the district had come.
In the 1970s, Pine Bush was the home of the grand dragon of a Klan chapter that became embroiled in a legal dispute with the state attorney general’s office, which had demanded that it reveal its membership list. The group, Independent Northern Klans Inc., which was represented by the American and New York Civil Liberties Unions, successfully rebuffed the effort. The Klan leader’s wife had been a member of Pine Bush’s school board.
The Anti-Defamation League, which said then that the chapter had about 200 “activists” in the region, says today there has been little evidence of organized Klan activity in the state in recent years.
Mr. Steinberg, in interviews, said he asked the parents who had sued why they chose Pine Bush. “I said to them, ‘If being Jewish is so important to you, why would you move into a community that does not have a synagogue?’ ”
“ ‘If you want your kids to hang out with more Jewish children or have more tolerance,’ ” he added, “ ‘why would you pick a community like Pine Bush?’ ”
He had experienced anti-Semitism as a child and as a parent, he said, elaborating on how he moved his own family within Nassau County after his young son was told by a classmate that she would not eat lunch with him because he was Jewish. “A 7-year-old doesn’t learn that except from her parents,” Mr. Steinberg remembered thinking.
“We don’t teach them hate in school, but yet we have to undo the hate and the intolerance,” he said.
Mr. Steinberg said he and his staff followed up on all complaints about anti-Semitic behavior, but substantiated fewer than a dozen examples of swastikas and other offensive graffiti. He said that through the assemblies, staff training and visits from Holocaust experts, he had sought to “try and change behaviors one student at a time.”
A Continuing Fight
In a September court hearing in White Plains, the district’s lawyer, Ms. Wong-Pan, told Judge Kenneth M. Karas that Pine Bush officials did not condone anti-Semitism. She accused the plaintiffs of distorting the facts.
“I mean, the way they describe it, it sounds like it’s the Third Reich in those schools,” she said.
At the local McDonald’s recently, a worker sweeping the floor, Corey Kyles, 25, said that his brother, Tyler, used to draw swastikas outside the town’s Boys and Girls Club, and also carve them into the high school’s wrestling mats.
“God only knows why he did it,” Mr. Kyles said of Tyler, who died in a car accident in 2009. “He probably was just stupid.”
The experiences of other Pine Bush alumni have varied. Sherri Kravitz-Donnell, the board president of Congregation Beth Hillel in nearby Walden and a longtime high school English teacher in Pine Bush until she retired in 2008, said she did not witness anti-Semitic behavior, nor did she hear about it from her son or daughter, who attended the schools.
But after they graduated, she said, her children, now in their 20s, said that they had experienced anti-Semitic teasing and slurs but had kept it from her, not wanting her to intervene.
Since 2011, at least two complaints about such behavior in Pine Bush’s Circleville Middle School have been received by the Jewish Federation in Orange County, said Susan Notar, a federation volunteer.
The first was from a parent about a boy on the school bus who said he had dressed up as a Hasidic Jew for Halloween because he “thought it was funny,” and whose brother had wanted to dress up as Hitler.
Ms. Notar said she emailed Circleville’s principal, Lisa Hankinson, who replied that she was “deeply troubled” and invited Ms. Notar to speak to the faculty. Ms. Notar said she offered the teachers resources to fight anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of intolerance.
The federation received another complaint last spring. Ms. Notar said that she again emailed Ms. Hankinson, and at her invitation returned two weeks ago to speak to an assembly of students.
Ms. Notar said Ms. Hankinson had responded appropriately. “I teach about the Holocaust,” Ms. Notar said. “I know what can happen when people look the other way.”
Nate Schweber contributed reporting from Pine Bush, N.Y.