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Anti-Semitism Shows Need to Extend Anti-Discrimination Law to Public Schools, Says Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks before signing the Child Victims Act in New York on Feb. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants a sweeping state anti-discrimination law expanded to cover public school students as a protected class in the wake of anti-Semitic incidents in one school district.

The New York Times reported today that Jewish students in the rural Pine Bush Central School District have faced years of harassment including “white power” chants, Nazi salutes, assault and battery, and swastikas scrawled on lockers and desks. Four years ago the district settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by five Jewish students for $4.48 million and a pledge to combat bias on campus and conduct surveys to chart progress.

Recent surveys included in a court filing last week revealed a third of the middle- and high-school students who took the survey (80 percent of enrolled students) said they sometimes, often or frequently witnessed or heard of anti-Semitic incidents within the previous year.

Cuomo said he was “disgusted by reports of persistent anti-Semitism in Pine Bush Central School District, despite the district’s legal commitment to tackle discrimination in its schools.”

“The scourge of anti-Semitism in Pine Bush schools is another disturbing reminder of the urgent need to extend our nation-leading Human Rights Law protections to public school students,” he said. “I call on the Legislature to immediately pass this reform that I have repeatedly proposed and ensure that all students in the State of New York have the right to pursue an education free from discrimination.”

New York’s Human Rights Law, which is enforced by the New York State Division of Human Rights, prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, and other jurisdictions including some educational institutions based on age, race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, military status, and other specified classes.

In 2012, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that public schools did not qualify as educational institutions covered by the law.

New York officials have been trying to get a handle statewide on spikes in anti-Semitic incidents. In 2018, New York City police said there was a 23 percent jump in reported anti-Semitic incidents. Assaults jumped 267 percent — from three in 2017 to 11 in 2018. Defacing property with swastikas and other aggravated harassment rose 73 percent last year.

The Yeshiva Yoreh Deah in White Sulphur Springs, N.Y., was set on fire Jan. 28 and swastikas were spray-painted on the school’s walls. The attack is being investigated as a hate crime.