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Queens Chronicle

Sikh student sues DOE

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Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2009 12:00 am

One year to the day after former Richmond Hill High School student Jagmohan Singh Premi reported being beaten by another student in a biased-based attack, Premi has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the city’s Department of Education failed to protect him from violence in school.

Premi, now 20 and enrolled in the special education program at the Queens Occupational Training Center, was repeatedly harassed between December 2007 and June 2008 by his attacker, according to his attorney, Gurbir Grewal of Howrey, LLP. The perpetrator allegedly slashed Premi an inch below his left eye using a key as a weapon, punched him and attempted to remove his patka, the small turban he wears in accordance with the Sikh faith.

Despite Premi’s attempts to make faculty aware of the harassment — which resulted in the administration suspending Premi’s tormentor — Grewal said both the DOE and RHHS were unable to efficiently safeguard his client from the abuse.

“The situation that happened was avoidable,” Grewal said. “At every turn, the school was informed of the harassment. Nothing was done.”

The school system also neglected to attend to Premi’s learning disabilities, which include a speech impediment and inability to keep up with his studies, Grewal said, a factor that may have contributed to the ongoing emotional torment he faced.

“You have someone who looks different and can’t keep up,” he said. “He becomes a target.”

Richmond Hill has one of the highest concentration of Sikhs in the city, a fact that makes Sundeep Singh, a community organizer at the nonprofit Sikh Coalition, question how much of a struggle Sikh students in other communities must overcome.

“If it can happen here, imagine how Sikh students in Staten Island or other parts of the city must feel,” Singh said.

Singh and other Sikh Coalition volunteers have been in contact with Premi and his family since the incident occurred. Members organized and sat in on meetings between the family and school. Because of the challenge of a language barrier between Premi’s parents and the faculty, organizers helped interpret the family’s side of the story so the school could begin to understand why the Sikh community felt the incident should be considered a racial-based attack, and not just an example of bullying.

“The tormentor attempted to pull Jagmohan’s turban off his head,” Singh said. “This is similar to trying to remove a Jewish boy’s yarmulke.”

Singh lauded the lawsuit, calling it acourageous act on the part of the family.

“This action made a difference and will continue to make a difference to Sikh students — and all students — in New York City.”

Grewal said his client waited a year to file the lawsuit because of delays that are common when filing a claim against a municipality. He would not disclose how much money Premi is requesting for damages.

Since the attack, the Sikh Coalition said it has been working with the DOE and RHHS to encourage the implementation of training and workshops that would educate faculty on the Sikh faith and change the culture in the school. According to preliminary data, the situation has improved at the school, Singh said. A representative from the DOE declined comment at this time.

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