As Pine Bush Continues Arguing Over Anti-Semitism Accusations, U.S. Attorney's Office Opens Investigation [UPDATED]
A third government agency has begun investigating claims of anti-Semitism in upstate New York's Pine Bush Central School District. The New York Times reports that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has opened a civil rights investigation to look into allegations that Pine Bush administrators did nothing to stop the harassment of Jewish students. Three Jewish families are suing the district, alleging that their children and others were allowed to be tormented for years without proper intervention from the district. After the Times ' original article on the harassment allegations appeared Friday, Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly announced that the State Police and the State Division of Human Rights would investigate; Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the same day that his office was also investigating.
According to the Times, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sent a letter to the Pine Bush school district's lawyer, saying it would investigate whether the school district, the Board of Education, or any of their employees "have discriminated against students on the basis of national origin and religion."
The entire Pine Bush area is still in an uproar over the allegations, with the region divided between people who never experienced prejudice, and those who say it was pervasive. An editorial in the Times-Herald Record yesterday called for residents to "stay calm and let the process work itself out," both in the anti-Semitism case and in the protracted argument over a proposed Hasidic housing development in nearby Bloomingburg.
Many people in both the Pine Bush region and the media have drawn connections between the Bloomingburg development and the Pine Bush allegations. There appears to be something of a conspiracy theory welling up on social media that the anti-Semitism lawsuit is being used to draw attention away from the controversy around the development. The discussion is taking place on Twitter among the region's younger people; for older people, a Pine Bush class reunion Facebook group has become the battleground, with discussion about the lawsuit and the proposed development frequently overrunning one another.
"I'm not 'anti-' any group," wrote one Pine Bush alum, Kathy Barrett, who said she graduated in 1969. "I don't care who or what you are, just don't cram something down my throat! This group coming into this community did so in an underhanded, untruthful, illegal manner. See if you're still 'embarrassed' when your school taxes jump higher than you can afford to pay because of this restricted community in our midst."
Another alum, Genea Haskins, called the lawsuit "a retaliative effort," to counteract the opposition to the Bloomingburg development. "Going on the attack is definitely going to redirect the outrage the community is feeling since finding the truth about the new developments," she wrote.
But others argued that anti-Semitism has long been a feature of Pine Bush. Lana Possick Burnette wrote that she attended Pine Bush High School some 30 years ago. "It doesn't matter whether or not you were aware of it, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist," she told the other group members. "When I had pennies thrown at me while eating lunch in the cafeteria I was too embarrassed to say anything to anyone. When people called me names i was mortified to tell anyone, especially my parents."
Burnette added that she quit high school over the bullying, but ultimately finished her degree. "This has nothing to do with the Bloomingburg issue," she wrote. "This was there long before that and will continue to be an issue until someone brings it into the spotlight and attempts to rectify an ongoing issue of ignorance." In response to Burnette's claims, another woman said she, too, had had swastikas drawn in her notebook and pennies left on her desk, in the mid-'80s.
In our own article on Monday morning, we featured the reactions of some current and recent Pine Bush students, many of whom said anti-Semitism wasn't an issue in their town. A few argued that the town's Jewish residents were to blame. And many of them also didn't quite see what the issue was if one particular group was being bullied, arguing that bullying happens everywhere and isn't unique to Pine Bush. Since we featured their tweets, the Voice has heard from one of those students, who tweeted a spirited defense of his school district.
@annaherself Pine Bush is not Anti-Semetic. Pine Bush as a school district is like every other school district.— Charlie (@NotCharlieSturm) November 12, 2013
@annaherself There will be accounts of bullying and such. But I promise you the staff of pine bush was on top of it and handled it correctly— Charlie (@NotCharlieSturm) November 12, 2013
He also shared tweets from several other Pine Bush students; many of them said they'd never seen swastikas in their school. But even if they had, some argued, what was the big deal?
In case you can't read that one, the student says he never noticed swastikas. But even if he had, he adds, "Ask that reporter chick if she honestly ever drew a swastika in her life. Everyone's done it. Kids make mistakes. This isn't a hate crime."
Update, 11:41 a.m.: We've obtained a copy of the letter from the U.S. District Attorney's office informing Pine Bush CSD's lawyer that they would be initiating an investigation. That's on the following page.
The lawyer for the Pine Bush plaintiffs, Ilann Maazel, also sent us a copy of a letter his firm wrote in July to the judge in their lawsuit, Kenneth M. Karas of the Federal District Court in White Plains. The letter summarizes their evidence, and claims that the school district suffered from "a culture of anti-Semitism," as well as "deliberate indifference" on the part of school officials.
Maazel says he's a bit confused that his lawsuit is being conflated with the issue of the Hasidic housing development in Bloomingburg. (For one thing, the people suing Pine Bush are not Hasidic.)
"I don't understand this connection people are trying to make in some other issue in some other town," Maazel says. "This has been a systemic problem in these schools for many years. We have thousands of pages of testimony, dozens of exhibits, photographs, witnesses, admissions from the administrators. It's pervasive. It's existed for years. And it's intolerable."
Click through for the documents.
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