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A New York City special education teacher who claims he was harassed by a neighboring teacher’s students because of his nationality has successfully stated a federal civil rights claim, a U.S. District judge has ruled. Though allegations of student-teacher harassment presented a novel fact pattern, Judge Allyne R. Ross of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York concluded that the teacher, Vincent Peries, had properly framed a “hostile work environment” complaint. Peries claimed that starting in 1992, students in another classroom — separated from his by only a partition — repeatedly taunted him about being born in Sri Lanka. Additionally, Peries accused administrators within the school system for failing to take adequate measures to protect him from the taunts. Over a two-year period, Peries alleged, students in the neighboring teacher’s classroom asked Peries, “Why are you here? You go home.” They also put a red dot on the forehead of a polar bear (and the picture remained on display in the adjoining classroom for months), and several times used vulgarities in connection with his nationality, according to Peries’ complaint. The New York City Board of Education did not dispute that Peries had been the butt of student remarks aimed at his nationality, but contended that its supervisors had acted appropriately in attempting to rein in the unruly students. On the novel threshold question, Judge Ross ruled in Peries v. New York City Board of Education, 97-7109, that a failure of school administrators to curb student harassment of a teacher on grounds of national origin could give rise to a Title VII hostile work environment. Ross noted that in the absence of any cases dealing with student-teacher harassment, the closest analogy was to cases involving claims that employers had not taken sufficient steps to control harassment of their employees by customers. Applying the standard used in those cases, Ross concluded that a trial was needed to unravel the issues presented in the case. On the question of whether the students had been allowed to create “an abusive atmosphere,” Ross wrote, “the ongoing name calling, mimicking and other abuse” described in the complaint was sufficient to create a triable issue of fact. Similarly, she concluded that Peries had submitted enough evidence to require a trial on whether school administrators knew about the harassment and failed to adequately address it. Peries had accused the Board of Education of failing to take meaningful action against the students. But the board countered that it could suspend special education students only in the most extreme circumstances. Leaving the issue to a jury, Judge Ross wrote that questions of fact remain as to “what disciplinary options are available short of suspension and what constitutes a proper division of responsibility between administrators and teachers.” Peries was represented by Jeffrey Slade of Manhattan. Assistant Corporation Counsel Lisa Grumet represented the Board of Education.

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