An Astoria man filed a lawsuit on behalf of his son, who he claims was bullied for his sexuality while school administrators allegedly did nothing to help. Now, he is looking to spread the word to make sure this experience doesn’t happen to someone else.
Jason Cianciotto filed a lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and others in June, claiming the school failed to protect his son from gender-based discrimination.
Cianciotto’s son, identified as D.S. in court documents, started attending Intermediate School 126 (I.S. 126Q) in Long Island City in 2017. D.S. came out as gay to his classmates that school year, and Cianciotto said things turned horrible very soon after.
“He immediately started being teased and ostracized,” Cianciotto said. “He was called names like ‘f—–,’ and the kids started saying things about me and my husband.”
Students ridiculed D.S. for “acting like a girl,” and was told he would be “damned to hell by God,” according to the lawsuit filed by Cianciotto. The court documents claim Cianciotto and his husband begged the defendants for help over the course of two years.
The lawsuit asserts the following: “[The defendants] 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 D.S. should learn to respect.”
The defendant list includes the DOE, the Board of Education of the city of New York and individual administrators.
Eventually, after years of bullying, a hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act found that the defendant’s failure to take action impeded his ability to learn.
The court documents include the hearing officer’s statement: “Not only did the school fail to address the bullying, but the sixth-grade dean of the school went so far as to blame the student for making himself a target of the bullying … . I am at a loss to understand how an educational professional could possibly blame a child for being the victim of a prolonged and severe pattern of emotional and physical bullying.”
After this hearing, the DOE was ordered to provide tutoring and trauma therapy to D.S.
“We were shocked. Living in New York City, we see this city and our state as a place that is a leader in progressive support for the LGBTQ community,” Cianciotto said. “Of all the things we were worried about, we were the least worried about the fact that he would be an out gay student in a New York City school. That presumption just turned out to be tragically wrong.”
Cianciotto said that before adopting D.S. in 2017, he and his husband knew he was non-conforming to gender roles based on his interests. The couple thought they could provide a supportive and safe environment for D.S. after going through so much with the foster care system.
D.S. had also been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and had surgery to remove it just months before meeting Cianciotto. Now, there are no signs of cancer.
“One of the most amazing memories I have was when he walked into our apartment for the first time and starting jumping up and down, saying, ‘I’m home!’ He’s such an integral part of our family,” Cianciotto said.
As D.S. continued to suffer from bullying, he struggled with his mental health. Cianciotto said that he and his husband worked hard to help D.S. feel safe and comfortable after years of trauma in the foster care system. However, once he dealt with relentless bullying, he started intentionally hurting himself and threatening suicide.
“Hearing your child say, ‘They won’t stop bullying me. I want to kill myself,’ it’s just so terrible,” Cianciotto said. “We were so afraid if our son continued to stay in that school that his life would be threatened.”
Cianciotto claims that administrators said they could not find a class for D.S. where he wouldn’t be bullied. After that, Cianciotto and his husband pulled D.S. out of I.S. 126Q and transferred him to Hunter’s Point Community Middle School.
“It was like night and day,” Cianciotto said. “We realized just how important the principal and administration are in creating a safe space. There were and are tools available to respond and prevent bullying from happening.”
Katie O’Hanlon, a DOE spokeswoman, said the allegations are troubling and there is zero tolerance for bullying of any kind in their 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,” O’Hanlon said. “The safety of our students is our number one priority, and we will review the complaint and immediately investigate the claims.”
D.S. just turned 15, and while Cianciotto said his son is doing much better, he still seeks justice for what his son endured.