Cuomo orders probe into anti-Semitic harassment allegations in Pine Bush schools


Quite simply the allegations are appalling. Students say they were viciously bullied in the PBSD, just because they're Jewish. But as Eyewitness News arrived in town Friday night, we were surrounded by a diverse group of parents who insist there's a lot more to this story.

"I would think as a relatively small rural community it would have been something parents would have known," said Holly Roche, a parent.

Holly Roche is Jewish herself and lived there for years.

Roxana Garmendiz moved her four kids there from the Bronx for a better life.

"I would never expose my children to any harm and move them to a town with KKK or anti-Semitism or any of that," said Roxana Garmendiz, a parent.

John Kahrs grew up in rural Pine Bush and is a proud district alum.

"My two children go to this school. It's unimaginable to think that kind of bigotry exists," Kahrs said.

The lawsuit is enough to take your breath away: accusations that as many as 35 students taunted Jewish peers who found themselves surrounded by swastikas and symbols of white power. These pictures were from inside one of the schools.

"The administrators were on notice. They were told by the parents many times there was anti-Semitism in the school. They were told in writing many times," said the students' attorney, Ilann Maazel.

Three families have sued the district and Governor Cuomo ordered an investigation.

But Friday night, parents staged an impromptu protest demanding Cuomo also investigate a land deal a few miles down the road in Bloomingburg. A Jewish developer and a resistant community have traded accusations of corruption and anti-Semitism.

These parents think the lawsuit is directly related to the controversial project.

"We think that as we are pushing the buttons for the corruption issue that there's an attempt to broad stroke the community as a bunch of anti-Semitic individuals, and that's just absolutely not true," Kahrs said.

The district superintendent would not comment on the pending lawsuit but did outline the district's policies about bullying and tolerance. In particular, students sit through mandatory presentations about the holocaust and the origins of anti-Semitic hate.

Jewish students told stories of being bullied with Holocaust jokes, getting beaten with a hockey stick, and one student had a swastika drawn on her face.

The alleged abuse sometimes happened in front of teachers.

Maazel says the students were traumatized, exposed to anti-Semitic bullying in the school district, where, they say, they were routinely harassed for much of their junior high and high school careers.

"Not for one day, not for one week, not for one month, but year after year," said Maazel. "It's coin-throwing, it's swastikas, it's anti-Semitic slurs, it's Holocaust jokes, it's everything you can possibly imagine."

He says teachers and administrators looked the other way for years.

Governor Cuomo called the allegations deeply disturbing.

"Here in New York State, we have zero tolerance for bigotry or hate based on anyone's religious or ethnic origin," Cuomo said. "And to that end, I have directed the State Police and the Division of Human Rights, to undergo a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding these acts. The public has a right to know the truth, and parents across the state have the right to know that their children can attend our schools without fear of this reprehensible behavior."

Cuomo also says he expects state education officials to tell parents what they knew and have done about the allegations at the district.

Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind also called on the state attorney general and U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

"There are reports about incidents of swastikas, ant-Semitic epithets and nicknames, and jokes about the Holocaust being virtually ignored by the school system," said Hikind. "And of course it doesn't end there. When local authorities ignored assault, it inevitably leads to battery, to terroristic threats, to a tolerance of constant intimidation as if that's an inalienable right. So one Jewish boy gets beaten severely and another Jewish child is withdrawn from school, a third child learns to deny being Jewish and a fourth testifies to feelings of depression and suicide."

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