Ahwatukee school sued by former student over antisemitic bullying | Phoenix New Times

After relentless antisemitic harassment, former student sues district

The U.S. Department of Education also found Altadeña Middle School failed to protect Camdyn Chavez from antisemitic bullying.
In a lawsuit, Camdyn Chavez said classmates at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School tormented her for years with antisemitic insults while the school did little about it.
In a lawsuit, Camdyn Chavez said classmates at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School tormented her for years with antisemitic insults while the school did little about it. Kevin Dooley/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
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A former Ahwatukee middle school student and her mother are suing the Kyrene School District for its failure to address rampant antisemitic harassment she received from fellow students from 2017 to 2019 – a failure for which the school already has been cited by the U.S. Department of Education.

The suit was brought by Camdyn Chavez, who was the subject of disturbing anti-Jewish persecution from classmates during her seventh- and eighth-grade years at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School. According to the lawsuit, a group of students frequently made Nazi salutes in Chavez’s presence, spoke in German accents, told her they were proud of having “Nazi blood,” called her a “filthy Jew,” made sexualized Holocaust jokes, harassed her via social media and made unwanted physical contact.

The harassment — and administrators’ failure to stop it — led Chavez to self-harm and make “multiple suicide attempts,” the suit said.

The lawsuit, filed on May 30 in Maricopa County Superior Court, comes two years after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated the school regarding Chavez’s treatment. In August 2022, that investigation concluded that the district and the school’s principal “failed to take reasonable responsive action to eliminate the hostile environment and prevent its recurrence.”

Many of the details in Chavez’s lawsuit are backed up by the Office for Civil Rights’ report.

James Martin, the principal who left Altadeña in 2020 and is now principal at Centennial Middle School in the same district, is a defendant in the lawsuit. So is Jeanette Vesely, the district’s superintendent until January 2021. According to the lawsuit, “Martin and Vesely refused to implement a safety plan that could be reasonably expected to deter Camdyn’s bullies from engaging in their ongoing harassment campaign.” The Office for Civil Rights reached the same conclusion.

The “daily onslaught of antisemitic bullying and harassment” became so great, the lawsuit said, that Chavez felt her only option was "staying away from the School and doing her classwork from home.” As a result, her grades dropped. Chavez and her mother are seeking compensatory damages.

“Camdyn has experienced and continues to experience severe mental health problems,” the lawsuit stated. “These mental health problems have already led to direct medical costs totaling well into the six figures and untold amounts of pain and suffering.”

When contacted by Phoenix New Times, Kyrene District spokesperson Erin Helm chose not to comment on the lawsuit. Neither Martin nor John Torgenson, the attorney for Chavez and her mother, responded to a New Times request for comment.

click to enlarge a text that says "stinky juw"
A screenshot of a message Camdyn Chavez said a classmate sent to her during her time at Kyrene Altadeña Middle School.
Court Documents

‘Gas the Jews’

Chavez first experienced bullying at Altadeña during the 2016-17 school year, when she was a sixth grader. But it wasn’t until her seventh-grade year, when she revealed in class that she celebrates Hanukkah, that the bullying took on an overtly antisemitic tone.

The lawsuit includes several examples of that harassment, many of which were included in the Department of Education’s report. The lawsuit also identifies several of Chavez’s alleged tormentors by name, though New Times is not including those names in this story because they were minors at the time.

The lawsuit said one classmate joked in front of Chavez that “the difference between a Jew and a pizza” is that ”one doesn’t scream in the oven.” Another told her that he had “Nazi blood” and was proud of his Nazi heritage. He also sent Chavez videos of himself marching with a gun and “saluting” Hitler.

Two different boys called out “Gas the Jews!” at Chavez as she walked through the hallways of the school. They also asked Chavez how to get a Jewish girl’s number before forcibly lifting up her sleeve, a reference to Nazis marking Jews with numbers to identify prisoners during the Holocaust. Those details are also mentioned in the Department of Education’s 2022 report.

Both the lawsuit and the Department of Education investigation said yet another duo of middle school boys made crude jokes about Chavez. They allegedly told her she must be good at oral sex because Jewish girls were “good at gasping for air” — a reference to Nazis using gas to exterminate Jews during the Holocaust.

The bullying extended to social media, where four of the students created a Snapchat group chat named “Jews [trashcan emoji], Nazis [checkmark emoji]” — to which they repeatedly added Chavez despite her attempts to leave it. The group of boys told her they “wished they could spread her ashes,” made Holocaust references and sent videos of themselves hailing Hitler and speaking in German accents. Several of the videos were taken on school grounds, the lawsuit stated.

A screenshot included in the lawsuit shows that the group was renamed at one point to “Lovers Of All Races” when one boy sent a message that read “Stinky juw” to the group.

The harassment led Chavez to suffer from depression, cut herself and experience panic attacks, according to the lawsuit. She brought the harassment to the attention of the district and a school counselor in the second semester of her seventh-grade year, but the counselor allegedly told her there was nothing she could do since the school year was almost over.

click to enlarge A man in a tie
Former Altadeña principal James Martin, now the principal at another middle school in the district, claimed the harassment Chavez experienced was "directed more broadly," though the Department of Education found he did little to investigate it.
Screenshot via Kyrene Centennial Middle School Facebook page

School inaction

The bullying intensified during her eighth-grade year, leading Chavez to begin taking antidepressants.

One boy left a message on Chavez’s voicemail telling her to “burn in an oven.” Another called out “Don’t let the dirty Jew” touch the ball during a soccer game in physical education class. Chavez cursed at him and was reprimanded by her teacher. The lawsuit said the boy who made the antisemitic comment faced no punishment.

Ultimately, Chavez and her mother, Paige Chavez, approached Martin, the principal. They provided videos of the students engaging in the conduct and messages on social media.

Martin claimed to the Department of Education that he investigated the matter. However, in an email to staff, he downplayed the extent to which Chavez had been targeted, writing that “many of the behaviors were directed more broadly.”

Martin had no basis to draw such a conclusion, according to the Department of Education. Its investigation found no evidence that Martin interviewed other students to determine whether the harassment was directed at anyone other than Chavez.

The school did take some disciplinary action, according to the lawsuit. One of Chavez’s harassers received in-school intervention while others were suspended. But those measures did little to stop the bullying Chavez experienced.

The bullies then began to harass Chavez for “snitching” on them, according to the lawsuit. When this happened one day during English class, the suit said, the teacher ordered Chavez — but not the students harassing her — to sit in the hallway, “effectively punishing her for others’ disruptive behavior.”

As the bullying continued, Chavez’s mother requested that Martin and the district create a safety plan for the rest of the school year. No plan was created, the suit said, and Chavez was forced to continue attending class with her harassers.

After spring break, Chavez’s mother met with Vesely and another district official, who offered to implement no-contact orders between her and her harassers. However, according to both the suit and the Department of Education investigation, they offered no safety plan to ensure such orders could be enforced.

As a result, Chavez felt unable to continue attending school and chose to complete the school year at home, though the suit said neither Martin nor the district informed her teachers specifically why Chavez would no longer be in class. The suit said the school failed “to provide Camdyn adequate homework or instruction, which caused Camdyn’s grades to fall.” Instead of addressing the issue more fully, Martin changed Chavez’s grades to pass/fail so she could be promoted to high school and, the lawsuit claimed, “no longer be the Defendants’ problem.”

Even away from school, the lawsuit stated, Chavez endured bullying. One of her classmates messaged her and told her “if she attended the school-sponsored dance” after the graduation ceremony, “he would kill her,” the suit said. She skipped the dance.

However, Chavez did attend a party where a group of her harassers surrounded her and pushed her into a pool, according to the suit. Her head slammed into the pool deck, and her dress went over her head.

The outside of the U.S. Department of Education
The Department of Education twice investigated Kyrene Altadeña Middle School over claims of rampant student-on-student bullying.
U.S Department of State/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Investigated again

The lawsuit alleged Chavez and her mother suffered harm including emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life. It also accused the district of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause and the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.

After the Department of Education found Kyrene School District “failed to implement measures to address the hostile environment,” the district struck an agreement to review its policies and better train its staff to address harassment. However, less than a year later, the Department of Education found the district failed to respond appropriately to race-based harassment of another student.

In March 2023, the department confirmed reports that a biracial student had been called the “n-word” and “monkey” in front of a classroom and on a school bus with little disciplinary action taken by administrators. The district again agreed with the federal government to improve its policies and implement new measures to prevent such harassment in the future.

The Department of Education said the incidents “raise concerns” that the district was again so flat-footed in the wake of identity-based harassment. It questioned how well the district was complying with the reforms mandated as a result of Chavez’s treatment, “including the District’s duty to take steps to eliminate a known hostile environment and fully redress any problems arising from it.”
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