Reacting to a shocking report of rampant anti-Semitism in a Hudson Valley school district, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday ordered state agencies to investigate the numerous allegations of harassment raised in a lawsuit against the Pine Bush Central School District.
A lengthy New York Times report detailed shocking incidents at the school some 90 minutes north of New York City, where as many as 35 students took part in harassing and beating Jewish students, swastikas were pervasive, and the use of anti-Semitic slurs was so insidious that administrators feel powerless to confront it.
“The reports of rampant anti-Semitic harassment and physical assaults at Pine Bush schools, if true, are deeply disturbing,” Cuomo said in a statement. “Here in New York State, we have zero tolerance for bigotry or hate based on anyone’s religious or ethnic origin.”
Cuomo’s quick response earned praise by the Orthodox Union, which said in a statement that they “applaud the governor for his immediate response and hope that his investigation of the school district brings about a change most sorely needed.”
The school superintendent said they could not comment on an ongoing legal case. They referred to it as “reports of discrimination or bullying,” as opposed to the “out of control anti-Semitism” described by a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
At the school servicing nearly 6,000 students of Ulster, Orange and Sullivan, the lawsuit described it as a scene out of the Wild West.
Swastikas were painted all over the place, even force-painted on Jewish students. A picture of President Barack Obama was overlaid with a swastika — and it remained hanging on the wall of an eighth-grade social studies classroom for about a month after a student informed her teacher. Holocaust jokes were common, as were threats to finish off Hitler’s work.
Once home to a local Ku Klux Klan chapter president, whose wife is a member of the school board, Jews who complained there were not even told that they were not isolated protests. School officials belittled the complaints as “unrealistic.”
“I have said I will meet with your daughters and I will,” Philip Steinberg, Pine Bush’s recently retired superintendent who is Jewish himself, responded to the parents of a female Jewish student who complained about harassment, “but your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.”
A lawsuit brought against Steinberg and two other administrators alleges an extensive series of assaults against Jews.
“There were multiple children who just did not feel safe going to school day after day,” said Ilann Maazel, a lawyer for the families.
One fifth grader told her mother that two boys had made drawings in school that she did not understand, adding, “I think it was something bad.” Asking her to redraw what she saw, her mother realized it was a swastika. Steve Fisch, the elementary school principal at the time, agreed to talk with the boys but added: “What’s the big deal? They didn’t aim it towards her.”
Following a threatening gesture later by a boy toward her daughter, the mother withdrew her from school.
“I actually started to hate myself for being Jewish,” another Pine Bush graduate said. Recalling how teachers would ask around the holidays if there were any Jewish students in the class, “I learned very, very quickly not to raise my hand,” he said.
Crude Holocaust jokes abounded. When a student was told that a friend’s ancestors were killed in the Holocaust, he blew onto his hand, “You are just ashes.”
“Every day at the high school,” one student said, “I would go in, and I would just have the worst day of my life.”
Many villagers claimed to be unaware of what was going on in the school. But several who knew either brushed it aside or said that the students were right.
“It’s just hate,” a woman said as she was picking up her child from the school. “And just being kids.”
But the worst for parents, the lawsuit claims, is the fact that complaints were not taken seriously. Out of eight cases, 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,” one parent said.
In a September court hearing, Wong-Pan, the district’s lawyer, 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.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also said that he has launched an investigation.