A Queens father is suing the New York City Department of Education and I.S. 126 in Long Island City for allegedly allowing his son to be subjected to years of homophobic bullying.
The boy, referred to as D.S. in court documents, enrolled in the middle school in 2017 shortly after coming into the care of Jason Cianciotto and his husband, Courter Simmons. Prior to his move with the Queens couple, D.S. had been abused by his biological mother and father and subsequently placed in foster care in Colorado only to be abandoned by his foster parent after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 10.
In order to help fix the negative impact D.S’ early years had had on him, Cianciotto and Simmons wanted to enroll their foster son in a school with an environment “free of fear and abuse,” but what they got was the opposite, they claim.
The lawsuit, filed in the state’s southern district court in Manhattan, alleges D.S. entered “a living nightmare” after enrolling in the middle school in 2017 and coming out as gay. Over the next two years, peers allegedly called the teen “fag” and “gay boy” and would make fun of him for “acting like a girl.”
D.S., who was open about his sexuality, was at one point allegedly told that he would be “damned to hell because of his lifestyle,” and that his fathers were a “mistake created by Jesus” because they were gay, the lawsuit alleges. Documents also claim D.S. was physically assaulted by his bully classmates on more than one occasion.
“It was devastating to watch my son suffer on a daily basis,” said Cianciotto. “Bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity expression is not just wrong, it’s against the law. The DOE and staff at I.S. 126 had a responsibility to follow that law and to keep my son safe. They repeatedly failed to do so and they should be held legally and publicly accountable.”
D.S. and his parents reported the bullying to school leadership, the lawsuit says, over the two years that it took place. But instead of stopping the harassment, school staff conducted a “half-hearted investigation” into the bullying and blamed D.S. for bringing the abusive behavior on himself by being open about his sexuality. Administrators even accused the teen of fabricating the harassment, the lawsuit claims, with one administrator even excusing the bullies’ comment that all LGBT people are destined to burn in hell as “difference of opinion that D.S. should learn to respect.”
The harassment, and the lack of action from school administrators, became so severe that Cianciotto and his husband were granted an emergency transfer out of I.S. 126. Cianciotto claims in the lawsuit that, given D.S.’s traumatic childhood, the bullying worsened his existing mental health struggles and caused extreme anxiety, depression and even suicidal fantasies.
The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages for the “considerable emotional distress” D.S. suffered and for the school administration’s role in denying the child his right to an education.
“These allegations are deeply troubling and there is absolutely zero tolerance for bullying or harassment of any kind in our schools. Every student deserves to feel safe, welcomed, and affirmed in their school and we have invested in trainings and support to reform classroom culture, with a focus on inclusive policies and effective strategies to prevent bullying,” said DOE spokesperson Katie O’Hanlon. “The safety of our students is our number one priority and we will review the complaint and immediately investigate the claims.”