Kristin Hernandez sent an email plea to St. Margaret of Cortona School principal Hugh Keenan on Dec. 6, 2021, asking him to do something about the bullying of her special needs teenage daughter.
“I wanted to make you aware of an incident that occurred last Thursday in school,” Hernandez wrote, sharing how her daughter had heard some students claimed she “sounds and looks retarded.”
“She has visibly sunk back into a very withdrawn depressive state we noticed over the weekend,” Hernandez continued, “and finally shared what was triggering her.”
In a federal lawsuit filed March 14, Hernandez and husband Rafael claim this was the trigger bringing “nearly 10 years of bullying at the school” to a head. Her daughter attempted suicide in January 2022, according to the suit, by taking 80 pills — including high blood pressure medicine used by her father, anti-depressant pills prescribed to Hernandez, as well generic Motrin picked up from a nearby drug store.
The lawsuit names the Archdiocese of New York, St. Margaret of Cortona School — now known as St. Margaret of Cortona-St. Gabriel School — and Keenan. The email is included in the suit as an example of multiple attempts by the Hernandez family to seek some kind of disciplinary action against the students they accused of bullying.
“Children would speak behind her back,” Rafael Hernandez told reporters during a news conference last month. “There was name-calling. She was a student with a disability, and because of that, she was a target.”
The bullying, according to the lawsuit, went beyond just name-calling.
“The harassment, bullying, physical attacks and aggressive behavior perpetrated upon (their daughter) were offensive, unwanted and interfered with her educational environment, and deprived her of the educational opportunities and benefits provided by the defendants,” the suit charges.
Manhattan attorney Sanford Rubenstein, who is representing the Hernandez family, was blunt about what the family seeks from the suit. Rubenstein is a high-profile attorney who has represented such clients as the family of Abner Louima — who was brutally attacked by New York police officers in 1997 — and Sean Bell, who was killed in a barrage of bullets by city police in 2006.
Rubenstein obtained multi-million-dollar payouts for both cases.
“First of all, this child is entitled to damages,” the lawyer told reporters. “Bullying of teens is a serious violation of one’s rights.”
The message he and fellow attorney Mark David Chirian have for St. Margaret of Cortona School is someone has to pay for such long-term abuse of a child.
“If you fail to act, you will be held accountable,” Rubenstein said. “A jury will decide how much those damages will be.”
The Archdiocese didn’t comment beyond a statement, calling the claims a “personnel matter.” Keenan did not return a phone message last week seeking comment.
Many parents of students at the school — like Stephanie, who would only give her first name — were unaware of what was happening in court.
“I’m happy with St. Margaret’s,” she said. “This is all news to me. I haven’t seen anything from the school. If it was really true that they did something or anything to a student, that’s very disappointing.”
As for her son, Stephanie said she was already planning to send him to P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen down the street from St. Margaret’s North Riverdale campus next year. She was accepted into the city’s 3-K plan, and could not afford to pay for any more classes after kindergarten.
Examples of bullying,
according to the suit
“Instead of protecting (Hernandezes’s daughter), officials at St. Margaret of Cortona School simply ignored her mother’s desperate pleas to protect her young daughter,” according to the suit.
One instance took place during recess in early 2014 during her second year of kindergarten, according to the suit. The family claims their daughter “was tied up with a jump rope by a group of young female students.” They wrapped her waist with jump rope, then held the other end of the rope tightly and ran fast, “which pulled her and caused her to fall to the ground.”
That fall punctured her skin near one of her eyes, causing a scar, according to the suit. Although Keenan came to the school yard and scolded the kids for what they did, the Hernandezes say there were no other consequences.
There was another time, according to the suit, when one of the accused bullies took the young girl’s smartphone and installed the social media app Snapchat on it. They then sent flirtatious messages to boys in school, embarrassing and isolating their daughter even more, the suit mentions.
All of the issues began in pre-kindergarten, the Hernandez family claims, when their daughter took part in St. Margaret’s summer camp in 2013, where she could receive specialized services from the city. When camp ended, a longtime second-grade teacher and the principal called Kristin Hernandez to discuss holding their daughter back for another year of kindergarten, according to the suit. The reasoning was her “fundamentals were not strong enough to be successful in the first grade,” and that “she would not be able to keep up.”
When the new academic year started, many of her classmates from kindergarten noticed the Hernandez girl didn’t continue on with them to first grade. The Hernandezes believe, according to the suit, that was the beginning of the bullying that would continue on over the next decade.
The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the Archdiocese, the school and Keenan.
The family attorneys claim the defendants violated Title III of the American with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the New York State Human Rights Law. It also claims negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of services on behalf of Rafael Hernandez.
As of April 4, the court was awaiting a response to their suit from the defendants.