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When Luke Bauer of Suffield, Conn., was in his early teens, retired neighbor Ron Little let him borrow tools and helped the boy with math and science. Little’s mind is fine. But Parkinson’s disease makes the smallest tasks — just buttoning clothes — a challenge. His medication produces side effects — jerky involuntary movements. Starting in 1996, when Bauer was 15, things changed. Teenage friends would gather to play basketball. First they just stared. One asked Little what was wrong with his arm. Little’s discomfort grew to fear of confrontation. And things got worse. One kid made chicken noises. There were late-night hang-up calls and doorbell “pranks.” Little complained to Bauer’s mother, and in September 1996, after finding dents in his siding from a basketball, he called Suffield police. The day of his complaint, someone wrote “Ron the Retard” in chalk on the street in front of his house. Later a screen was cut and a downspout bashed. The youths tried repeatedly to throw a screwdriver so it stuck in the siding, which was ruined. FEAR AND FRUSTRATION Little, frustrated and fearful, began sleeping with a shotgun at his side. He also called his former employment lawyer, Judith Meyer, of Avon, Conn. The estimate to fix the siding was $1,200. Through the police, Meyer was able to get the names of most of the five teen boys involved, and initially thought a few letters would do the trick. One boy, and his father, agreed to pay a proportional share. But the rest denied responsibility, says Meyer. “I would have done this just pro bono and just be done with it,” settling for the property damage, she said. “But the one parent contacted the other parents, who adamantly refused to do anything.” Because of Little’s disability, Meyer turned to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, persuading the state agency it had jurisdiction to take the case. After a fact-finding hearing, two more youths settled. But Bauer and his friend Stephen Clark continued to deny any responsibility. At the full hearing, Human Rights Referee David S. Knishkowy paid close attention, as reflected in his careful 25-page decision. He refused to buy Bauer’s characterization that the behavior was just “youthful indiscretion.” Meyer pled the case under Connecticut’s “hate crime” statute, which provides purely civil remedies as well. Then she found a brief authored by Assistant Attorney General David Teed that convinced her she had a housing discrimination case. Teed and Assistant Attorney General Karla A. Turekian represented the CHRO in the case. Knishkowy accepted the case as housing discrimination — declining to confine the federal housing discrimination statutes to sales and rentals. State and federal law prohibits housing discrimination based on disability, but “neither statute explicitly identifies harassment as a form of prohibited discrimination,” Knishkowy noted. USEFUL ANALOGY However, federal courts have held that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination in both employment and housing cases, Knishkowy wrote. He cited the 1997 D.C. District Court case of Reeves v. Carrollsburg Condominium, a hostile housing environment case based on race and gender. Mapping new ground, Knishkowy set forth a four-part test for a hostile housing case based on physical disability. A complainant must first demonstrate a disability or handicap, and second, be subject to unwelcome harassment. Third, the harassment must be based on his disability and, fourth, it must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the complainant’s living conditions and to create an abusive environment.” Little endured more than a year of vandalism and “the persistent indignities of hostile stares, mocking behavior, and cruel and insensitive graffiti blatantly displayed in front of his house for others to see.” By being maliciously and erroneously branded a “retard,” his fine intellect — a feature that Little’s Parkinson’s disease left completely undamaged — was cruelly attacked, Knishkowy noted. The hearing officer declined to award the $75,000 sought, but gave Meyer $15,507 in attorney’s fees, $1,015 for property damage, and $20,000 for emotional distress damages. Sandra Bauer, Luke’s mother, condemned the ruling as unfair. “It’s no wonder I’m changing my party to Republican. I’ve had quite enough of affirmative action and all this other (bull). My son was being discriminated against because he is a young, white male. This has changed me. Where am I going to get that kind of money?” On one level, Meyer says, “this could appear to be making much too big a case. It really was only a matter of doing what needed to be done to insure the safety of a severely disabled man.” The two final teen defendants, Bauer and Clark, proceeded pro se. Neither they nor their parents conceded fault or responsibility, Meyer says. “We’re not much of a society if we’re willing to tolerate this kind of behavior,” she concludes, adding, “sometimes, it does take a village.”

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