- A gay couple said New York school failed to deal with the homophobic bullying their son endured.
- Their child was repeatedly called homophobic slurs and physically attacked, his father told Insider.
- Jason Cianciotto, one of the child’s fathers, is accusing the school of breaking New York’s anti-bullying laws.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When Jason Cianciotto and his husband signed up their newly adopted son for the Albert Shanker School for the Visual Performing Arts, they thought it seemed like the perfect fit for him.
“Shortly after coming home with us, he came out to us as gay,” Cianciotto told Insider. “So we thought that there was also a good chance that a school that focused on the performing arts might also have other students who were out or, at the very least, it would be a safe and welcoming environment for kids like my son.”
They were mistaken.
What followed, Cianciatto said, was two “horrific” years of homophobic bullying and physical attacks by students and victim-blaming from senior staff at the school.
Now, Cianciotto, who is the senior managing director at a global non-profit, and his husband are seeking “justice” by suing the New York City Department of Education (DoE), the Board of Education (BoE) for New York City Public Schools, and several employees at the school their adopted son attended between 2017 and 2019.
‘His dream of being adopted… was finally coming true’
Cianciotto and his husband began the foster-to-adopt process with their son, who will be referred to as “Daniel,” to protect his privacy in 2017.
Daniel had a troubled start to life, according to legal documents seen by Insider. His biological parents were addicted to drugs and alcohol, and domestic abuse was commonplace in their home. He was placed into the child protection system at 7-years-old.
Daniel struggled with diagnoses of PTSD, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and epilepsy, as well as several learning disabilities resulting from a brain tumor, and was repeatedly abandoned by foster parents.
But when Cianciotto and his husband, who asked not to be named, came along, things started to look up for the 11-year-old boy.
“His dream of being adopted and having a forever family and, on top of that, having a family of two dads that were so welcoming and accepting of him was finally coming true,” Cianciotto said.
Daniel’s new parents deliberated over which school to send him to, hoping to find an environment that he could “learn and grow… free from fear and abuse.” They chose to enroll him in sixth grade at Intermediate School 126 (I.S. 126), better known as the Albert Shanker School for Visual and Performing Arts, in Long Island City in September 2017.
Daniel was blamed for bringing the homophobic abuse on himself
Cianciotto said the school was a “hostile and dangerous environment” for their son from the get-go. “He came out to his classmates and teachers shortly after the school year began, and right away the bullying, harassment based on his sexual orientation, and perceived gender identity began,” he added.
A 45-page lawsuit filed in a New York district court cites many examples of homophobic abuse directed at Daniel while at the Long Island City public school.
He was allegedly called several homophobic slurs, including “faggot ass,” “gay boy,” and “pussy dick sucking face.” He was ridiculed and was told that he was “damned to hell by God because of his lifestyle,” the complaint continued.
He was also physically assaulted on several occasions, according to Cianciotto.
The bullying had a profound impact on Daniel’s mental health, his father added.
“He started, for example, self-harming behavior, where he would bite himself, he would hit his head with his hand or hit his hand against a desk or a locker at school. He would poke his fingers in his eyes,” he said. “Eventually, that self-harming turned into saying that he wanted to die by suicide.”
The parents tried to speak to the school about the bullying but a meeting with the sixth-grade dean allegedly resulted in Daniel being blamed for bringing the homophobic abuse on himself.
“We were shocked and horrified to hear her say that talking about homosexuality in middle school is not appropriate and that if my son just stopped talking about his sexual orientation or that he was getting adopted by two gay dads, then it wouldn’t be a problem,” Cianciotto said.
‘They accused him of fabricating the harassment’
Daniel and his parents alerted school administrators to the homophobic bullying but, according to the complaint, the school staff repeatedly flouted their legal obligation to document and investigate several reports of harassment.
Under New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act, the Board of Education mandates that school employees who witness or learn about harassment, bullying, or discrimination must report it to administrators. If “substantiated,” these reports must then be investigated and appropriate action must be taken to remedy them.
Cianciotto said that the school found excuses not to investigate several incidents of bullying and discrimination.
“They accused him of fabricating the harassment, blamed him for bringing the bullying on himself by being open about his sexuality, and excused his bullies’ pronouncements that LGBT people are destined to burn in hell as a mere ‘difference of opinion’ that [Daniel] should learn to respect,” the complaint reads.
“There’s a very clear difference between helping young people learn and understand and respect various religious beliefs and traditions and allowing there to be religious-based bullying and harassment,” Cianciotto added.
Another incident, in which Daniel was called a homophobic slur, wasn’t considered substantiated enough to be investigated because it was decided that a student knew no better, according to the complaint.
“Even though it was confirmed that a student called him a faggot, the dean investigating it said that it wasn’t actually a bias incident because the students who said it didn’t have the contextual understanding to go to know what that meant,” Cianciatto said.
The father told Insider that other homophobic attacks were overlooked because teachers claimed they could not corroborate the information.
‘We needed to find a safer school for him’
In May 2019, an incident was deemed to be substantial enough for the school to log. Daniel received notes in class. One called him a “gay bitch,” and the other said: “Because you don’t love Jesus your [sic] an asshole . . . you [sic] going to hell you white idiot.”
A dean notified Cianciotto of the incident by email. However, according to the complaint, the school took no action beyond sending letters to the parents of all those involved.
On May 22, 2019. Cianciotto and his husband arranged to speak to the school principal, Alexander Enguiera, who turned down Insider’s recent request for an interview. In a meeting also attended by the assistant principal and the seventh-grade dean, Daniel’s parents said they were left deeply disappointed.
“Not only did they say that they couldn’t put him in a different class or reasonably ensure that the bullying would stop, they also confronted me, saying that the parents of kids who had bullied him were putting pressure on the school and ask why it was that my son was getting ‘special attention,'” said Cianciotto.
The meeting made it clear that they needed to find a safer school for their son. Daniel was pulled out of school and an emergency transfer to a new school was approved.
“These allegations are deeply troubling and there is absolutely zero tolerance for bullying or harassment of any kind in our schools,” a spokesperson for the New York City DoE told Insider in an email statement. “Every student deserves to feel safe, welcomed, and affirmed in their school and we have invested in training and support to reform classroom culture, with a focus on inclusive policies and effective strategies to prevent bullying,” the statement continued.
“The safety of our students is our number one priority and we will review the complaint and immediately investigate the claims,” the spokesperson added.
The school had bullying rates significantly above the district average
Cianciotto and his attorneys are now seeking to hold the Albert Shanker school and the DoE and BoE accountable for the bullying Daniel experienced.
“We want to do everything we can to make sure that other kids like my son don’t experience this kind of bullying,” Cianciotto said.
Daniel, who is now 14, is at a middle school in the same district. “The difference is night and day,” his father said.
The complaint highlights that the Albert Shanker school had bullying rates significantly above the district average while Daniel attended it, according to the Department of Education’s School Quality Surveys.
The 2018-2019 survey outlines that 42% of respondents said that students harass, bully or intimidate each other based on gender, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation, compared to 24% elsewhere in the district.
This highlights the school’s notable failings, according to the complaint.
“What that really highlighted for us is that it’s very possible and actually is safe in some schools for kids where bullying is addressed quickly and stopped, and the law is followed,” Cianciotto reflected.