Abel Cedeno, the gay teen charged with manslaughter for using a knife to defend himself in September from two students at his Bronx school he says were attacking him — leading to the death of Matthew McCree and the wounding of Ariane Laboy — has filed a lawsuit against the city, the Department of Education (DOE), and school administrators and teachers for their history of failing to protect him from anti-gay bullying since he was in sixth grade.
Out gay civil rights attorney Thomas Shanahan, representing Cedeno, filed a notice of claim with the office of City Comptroller Scott Stringer on December 18 and will file the suit in the federal court for the Southern District of New York early next month. At Shanahan’s offices, Cedeno was surrounded by his whole family and his supporters in the LGBTQ community from the youth-run advocacy group FIERCE!
Asked why he is filing suit, Cedeno told Gay City News, “So the school system can change — and change behaviors [of the bullies] and protect kids that are in need of help, not just send them to a counselor. The policies [dealing with bullying] need to be implemented.”
The suit documents how Cedeno was bullied continuously for six years, often called a “faggot,” told he “looks like a girl” for having long hair, having his belongings stolen, and enduring numerous physical attacks including being “punched, hit, and [having] items thrown at him” while “enduring discriminatory anti-gay epithets.”
The complaint states that the bullying got so bad that he attempted suicide.
“Abel hopes by telling his story, other LGBT students around the country will not have to endure egregious bullying for years on end,” the document states.
“This is not just about Abel,” Shanahan said.
The suit seeks court appointment of “a monitor to oversee DOE policies and procedures and reporting of bullying of children who identify as members of the LGBT community.” It asserts that school administrators “as a practice do not report bullying” as required by DOE regulations and state law. It also seeks unspecified compensation for Cedeno to help him heal from the “psychological damage” of the relentless, unaddressed bullying.
The same day the suit was announced, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced the closing of 14 low-performing and problem schools, including Cedeno’s Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, which has been described as chaotic and unsafe for several years.
Christopher R. Lynn, one of the out gay attorneys representing Cedeno in his criminal case, said, “The DOE claims that despite adding numerous school guards it cannot make Abel’s former school safe. Of course they refuse to confront the 800 YGZ gang that predominates there as that would require confrontation with kids and parents who are aware of this and who tacitly or otherwise approve.”
Cedeno has said he knew his attackers to be members of the gang and feared for his life when they assaulted him in his classroom despite seeing him with a knife he wielded to protect himself.
Attorney Sanford Rubenstein, who is suing the city for $25 million on behalf of the McCree family, told Gay City News, “The fact that it will not be used as a school does not change the fact administrators and teachers from there will be transferred to other schools. Those problems were there before Matthew was stabbed to death.”
Rubenstein called for the firing of Fariña “for failing to close the school before. Cedeno must be held accountable for what he did, but there is a lot of blame to go around for what happened.”
Cedeno, who is now out of Rikers Island jail on bail, is under a one-year suspension from attending school, which was not lifted after a seven-hour hearing last week where the DOE did not call any eyewitnesses to the fight that led to his arrest. He is being given educational services from the DOE to help him complete the credits he still needs to graduate.
Cedeno’s mother, Luz Hernandez, told Gay City News, “My son is not the same kid. He is afraid walking the streets — afraid the kids from this gang will try to kill him. My son is the victim in all this. You don’t know what my son suffered all these years.”
His sister, Vanessa Cruz, said that when family members went to the school over the years to deal with Cedeno’s absences and depression, “We were never told that he was being bullied.” Cedeno himself said that when he did complain, “they just gave me a little counseling and told me to ignore it.”
No required reports were filed by school authorities.
Skye Adrian of FIERCE! said that at one of Cedeno’s court appearances where he and other LGBTQ supporters of Cedeno rallied, some people supporting the McCree family “were shouting [anti-LGBTQ] slurs at us.”
Cedeno said he was treated decently at Rikers where he was kept in protective custody, but at first “it was scary. I didn’t know how I was going to survive.”
Now, he said, “I feel like I’m still in there. I can’t go outside and do normal things. What if someone is watching me?”
Cedeno is required to comply with a curfew each night.
The Cedeno and McCree families agree on one thing: the schools failed their children and have to change.
Lynn was initially skeptical about the filing of a civil suit, thinking “one war at a time.” But as the criminal case progressed and he dealt with the suspension hearing as well, “it became clear that the schools have no clue how to implement” the regulations against bullying or the state anti-bullying law, he said.
While the DOE has announced yet another anti-bullying initiative, transgender activist Sophie Cadle, one of Cedeno’s most stalwart allies, said, “We have to train staff in the schools and hold the administrators responsible.”