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Suits Against City Fly in Wake of Cedeno Conviction

Three cases seek anti-bullying law enforcement; DOE report minimizes Bronx school’s disorder

Louna Dennis, whose son Matthew McCree died in the 2017 Bronx school fight, with her lawyer, Sanford Rubenstein, who has filed a $25 million lawsuit against the Department of Education, the NYPD, and Cedeno.
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Now that gay teen Abel Cedeno has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for manslaughter and assault for using a knife in a 2017 Bronx classroom fight that left Matthew McCree dead and injured Ariane Laboy, three lawsuits are heating up against the city to determine the schools’ liability for the harm to McCree and Laboy as well as to Cedeno himself.

Louna Dennis, McCree’ mother, is suing the City’s Department of Education (DOE), the NYPD, and Cedeno for her son’s “wrongful death.” Her attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, said he is basing the suit on the lack of metal detectors at the Urban Assembly for Wildlife Conservation High School that he says had been requested by the principal, the failure of an assistant principal to act properly on an alleged warning by Cedeno’s mother, Luz Hernandez, in 2014 that her son had brought a knife to school, and the school’s failure to deal with the bullying of Cedeno under the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), which requires reporting of such incidents.

Ariane Laboy, represented by attorney Matthew Blit, is suing on similar grounds.

“All three of these kids — Ariane, Matthew, and Abel — and their families were failed,” he said. “The DOE failed miserably in protecting our children despite a clear warning from Mr. Cedeno’s own mother. The DOE took no action to prevent it, failed to train the teachers in the classroom on how to prevent it or diffuse a simple argument that snowballed.”

And despite the fact that he is now a convicted felon, Cedeno is pursuing a federal lawsuit just amended by his attorney, Tom Shanahan, and joined by Mustafa Sullivan of FIERCE, which serves LGBTQ youth, primarily those of color, on behalf of “all similarly situated” youth in Bronx schools against Chancellor Richard Carranza, the former principal of the now-shuttered high school, and the principals of Cedeno’s intermediate and middle schools where, the suit says, “Abel was subjected to egregious bullying by peers based upon his sex, gender, actual or perceived gender, gender non-conformity and/ or actual or perceived sexual orientation. Almost all D.O.E. employee including hall monitors, teachers, guidance counselors, school and district administrators did nothing.”

Sullivan wrote that FIERCE members prepared to testify include Rakeish Doolam, now 22, who was bullied in the Bronx from the elementary grades through high school. In sixth grade “school staff told that him that he would get over it in high school,” Sullivan wrote. But the bullying did not abate and Doolam contemplated taking his own life and attended school less and less. His family sent him to Jamaica where he faced familial homophobia. When he returned to New York, his family disowned him and he entered housing provided by the Ali Forney Center, which serves LGBTQ homeless youth.

Also set to testify is Desmond is Amazing, 12, a drag performer and advocate working to end bullying and whose own experience in the schools has been mixed, though he enjoys parental support.

On September 12, the special commissioner of investigation for the city’s public schools issued a report that led with the conclusion that Wildlife’s assistant principal for discipline, Caridad Caro — identified in the suit Rubenstein filed — “failed to properly act on a report” to the school by Cedeno’s mother in 2014 that he “had threatened family members with a knife, and had brought the knife to school in his backpack.” Caro testified that she searched Cedeno’s backpack and did not find a knife and did not feel the need to report the matter further. The commissioner’s report says, “Weapons searches of students are not to be conducted by DOE staffers,” but by NYPD School Safety Agents. The special commissioner recommended that Caro be fired and not employed by the DOE in the future.

Rubenstein and Blit have seized on this irregularity in the 2014 knife incident in their suits. Cedeno’s defense attorney, Christopher R. Lynn, said the weapon described was “a butter knife” and that Cedeno never brought it to school.

The attorneys in all three lawsuits — and the judge in the criminal trial, Michael A. Gross — seem to agree that Cedeno did suffer from serious bullying, so much so that he had extended absences from school and had to repeat the 12th grade.

According to the special commissioner’s report, however, all of the teachers and administrators Cedeno said he told about being bullied — but did nothing about it — stated that the gay youth never told them he was being bullied. The report identifies a Mr. Keating, who told investigators he met with Cedeno — sometimes with his mother — about “absenteeism, behavioral issues, and poor academic performance” but that “the student never said that he was bullied at Wildlife.”

Cedeno has said that many of these same school personnel witnessed him being called a “faggot” and worse and took no action whatsoever other than to tell the class to “settle down.”

A report that Friends of the Island Academy, a Rikers-associated youth re-entry program where Cedeno was getting help while out on bail, submitted to Judge Gross prior to sentencing, stated that, according to Cedeno, Keating “told Abel to ‘be strong,’ however Abel noted that Mr. Keating did not know how to address the bullying in an effective way. Students began targeting Mr. Keating and Abel, spreading rumors that Abel was dating Mr. Keating and detailing made-up stories of sexual contact between Abel and his teacher… Abel noted that even the ‘teachers at the school were afraid of other bullies.’”

Guidance counselor Shavon Evelyn, who the Shanahan suit alleges failed to file a DASA bullying report, also told investigators that Cedeno “never complained about bullying.” Lynn said that when Evelyn was questioned in pre-trial deposition, she acknowledged that she never filed a report on any bullying incident in the school and said it was up to the school’s dean of students.

Throughout the city’s public school system there is a paucity of official incident reports on bullying — mostly because school administrators think it stigmatizes them. But anonymous student surveys conducted by the DOE indicate that the problem is “significant.” An audit by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli found that bullying is chronically underreported, with a third of schools reporting zero “material incidents” of bullying to the State Education Department.

The special commissioner’s report alludes to other students not named who were discipline problems at the school, but does not name McCree or Laboy who, Lynn said, were the subject of numerous “occurrence” reports for misbehavior.

“There was no investigation of the gang fight involving several students led by McCree occurring six months prior to September 2017,” Lynn said. “Abel identified two boys who threatened to rape him,” but that wasn’t investigated either.

About the DOE special commissioner’s report, Shanahan said, “The truth will set you free. This report is an attempt to whitewash the truth. We are ready to defend against their attempts to rewrite history and disparage Abel’s character. Although Judge Gross kept out substantial testimony and evidence during the criminal trial, it will all come in during the civil trial. This is not the first time attempts to deflect from their own failures and blame the victim.”

Then, commenting on the weakness of the state’s anti-bullying law, Shanahan added, “Students have no private right of action under DASA” to seek a legal remedy. “That’s why schools don’t take DASA seriously. There is no risk of consequences for failing to follow up on a complaint.”

Shanahan’s suit is filed under Title IX of federal education law that forbids sex discrimination.

Had the DOE followed its procedures and dealt with the bullying to which Cedeno was subjected, Shanahan said, “he wouldn’t have bought a knife for self-defense and he would not be a convicted felon.” The attorney also faulted the DOE for its failure to deal with discipline problems of McCree and Laboy, right up to “pushing teachers aside to attack Abel” on the day of the fatal encounter in the school.

The Rubenstein suit also cites the school’s failure to maintain order in the classroom.

Lynn said he is looking forward to finally dealing with evidence of disorder in the school that was not allowed into the criminal trial. He is urging the city not to settle these lawsuits until all that evidence is introduced.

Updated 1:45 pm, September 17, 2019
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