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Appeal addressing whether the New York State Human Rights Law protects students from discrimination by and harassment in public school districts, in which a school district challenges an administrative award of damages to an African American student and her mother based on a finding that the daughter’s school failed to reasonably address racial harassment of her by other students.


In the case that raised this issue, Kearney vs. Ithaca City School District, a young African-American girl alleged relentless harassment by a group of white students while riding the public school bus to DeWitt Middle School. Her mother, Amelia Kearney, said she reported the incidents but was given little to no help. She claims that the district failed to protect her daughter from racial harassment.

In defense against this claim, the Ithaca City School District not only contested the specific facts, but argued that the New York State Human Rights Law (NYHRL) does not apply to public schools at all. The school district initially rescinded its challenge to the applicability of the NYHRL, only to renew it after the New York State Division of Human Rights issued a determination, after a public hearing on the matter, finding that the district had violated the student’s rights. The school district challenged that finding, and a state Supreme Court judge ruled in October 2009 that that the NYHRL does not apply to public schools. The State and Ms. Kearney each appealed that ruling to the Appellate Division Third Department.

Lambda Legal and nine other civil rights organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief stressing the importance of the NYHRL’s protections to public school students, and that under the school district’s interpretation only a relatively miniscule percentage of students would be protected under this law. The school district’s decision to challenge the NYHRL has garnered harsh criticism from community members and civil rights organizations.

Lambda Legal was joined by the following organizations on this brief: Advocates for Children of New York, Inc., Anti-Defamation League, Disability Advocates, Inc., Empire State Pride Agenda, The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, The Ithaca Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Task Force, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., The New York Civil Liberties Union, and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.


  • September 2007 New York State Supreme Court rules in favor of protections for students under the New York Human Rights Law.
  • October 2007 Lambda Legal sends letter to Ithaca City School District Board of Education highlighting the harms to LGBT students in their attack on the law.
  • October 2007 Ithaca City School District Board unanimously rules to rescind their legal challenge to NYHRL allowing the case to proceed on other merits.
  • May 2009 After public hearing, NY State Division of Human Rights finds that Ithaca City School District discriminated against Ms. Kearney’s daughter by permitting her to be subjected to racial harassment, awarded monetary damages to Ms. Kearney and her daughter, and ordered injunctive relief.
  • October 2009 On appeal by Ithaca City School District, NY State Supreme Court (Tompkins County) annuls the Division’s determination, holding that public school districts are not subject to NYHRL.
  • November 2009 NY State Division of Human Rights and Ms. Kearney each appeal to the Appellate Division Third Department.
  • July 2010; October 2010 State Division of Human Rights and Ms. Kearney file briefs in support of their appeals, respectively.
  • October 2010 Lambda Legal files an amicus brief in the New York Appellate Division Third Department.
  • June 2011 Third Department Appellate Division holds that public school districts, including Ithaca City School District, are subject to NYHRL and confirms the NY State Division’s jurisdiction. After modifying the amount of damages awarded, the Court confirms all other aspects of the Division’s determination.
  • November 2011 New York State Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, grants Ithaca City School District's motion for review.
  • March 2012 Lambda Legal files amicus brief in the Court of Appeals.
  • June 2012 The Court rules that the New York Human Rights Law does not protect students against harassment and discrimination in public schools. As a result, the nearly 90 percent of all New York students who attend public schools are now denied access to that law's comprehensive protections.