Abel Cedeno, the bullied gay teen convicted in the stabbing death of one classmate and the slashing of another in a wild Bronx classroom fight two years ago, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the manslaughter of Matthew McCree, then 15, and eight years for assaulting Ariane Laboy, then 16, the two sentences to run concurrently. He also received 90 days for possession of a knife.
Justice Michael A. Gross acknowledged but rejected numerous and diverse pleas for Youthful Offender status for Cedeno from elected officials, LGBTQ groups, and organizations that provide counseling and alternatives to incarceration. Cedeno had just turned 18 at the time of his crime and would have faced one to four years if granted Youthful Offender status — as well as the chance to have his record wiped clean after serving his sentence.
Assistant District Attorney Nancy Borko had sought a sentence of 10 to 20 years for manslaughter and 10 years for assault to run consecutively, for a total of 30 years.
It was a dramatic and emotional day in the Bronx courtroom. McCree’s aunt, Lacey Providence, spoke, supported by Louna Dennis, McCree’s mother, who did not address the court.
“Matthew had a heart of gold,” the aunt said. “We love gay, straight, black, white. Abel has destroyed our family.”
Outside the court, Providence said, “I have so many happy memories of my nephew, but the only one that haunts me is seeing his lifeless body.”
As Laboy’s mother spoke of the injuries to her son and his loss of his best friend McCree, Dennis fled the courtroom shrieking in agony.
Laboy’s mom said, “I’ve always protected my son but I could not protect him that day. Cedeno did not know my son. I’m sure he was bullied, but not by my son.”
Cedeno contended that McCree and Laboy were well known as gang members and that they had beaten his best friend, accounting for his fear of them when they charged him and started pummeling him after harassing him that fateful day in the classroom.
Leaving the Bronx Hall of Justice after the sentencing, a scuffle broke out among the Laboy and McCree families at the exit that led court officers to tackle Laboy to the ground and briefly detain him.
Borko derided Cedeno as “celebrity” defendant. At first, the incident drew massive media attention because it was the first slaying inside a school in decades. Then Cedeno’s history of being bullied since the sixth grade — and his school’s doing nothing to help him — sparked the city Department of Education (DOE) to look into the chaos at his Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation and to close it. The violence also led the City Council’s then-Education Committee chair, Daniel Dromm, an out gay former teacher, to hold daylong hearings in October 2017 on bullying in schools where the DOE committed to increased resources to combat the epidemic.
Borko also accused Cedeno of “blaming the victims” for his testimony that he was trying to defend himself from their assaults on him that day.
“He wanted to show that he was a badass,” she said, “Saying, ‘I never intended this to happen’ is not taking responsibility… He continues to blame everyone but himself.”
Borko also contended that McCree and Laboy “saved” another gay student at the school from suicide when they discovered him trying to hang himself in a stairwell. After the sentencing, Dennis confirmed that account.
But Cedeno’s out gay attorney Christopher Lynn, who represented him pro bono, said afterwards that McCree and Laboy had been bullying the student and only called school authorities when the student moved to take his own life. That student got a settlement from the city, paying for a private school education.
Cedeno’s own statement to the court was difficult to hear, but he did say, “I know I was the one who brought the knife to school. I am sorry for everything. I have to live with this for the rest of my life. I feel horrible about it every day, morning and night. I would take it all back if I could. I am not a monster.”
Justice Gross, in rejecting Youthful Offender status for Cedeno, said, “Schools should be safe places for learning.” There was “no legal justification” for Cedeno’s contention that he was acting in self-defense, he said. While not dismissing Cedeno’s history of being bullied, he said, “That cannot be used an excuse for murderous rage.”
In addition to the killing of McCree and slashing of Laboy, Gross also expressed deep concern for the “traumatized” students who witnessed the fracas in the classroom.
After the sentencing, Dennis — who is suing the city and Cedeno for $25 million for her son’s wrongful death — said, “I didn’t get my 50 years” — the maximum to which Cedeno was subject — “but I’ll take 14.”
After the sentence was read, Cedeno was dazed and at first unable to rise from his chair to be handcuffed and led out to prison. He must serve at least six-sevenths of the sentence, likely upstate in Greenhaven or Attica, according to Lynn.
Dennis’ civil attorney, Sanford Rubenstein, said, “Abel Cedeno was held accountable today… Now it is time for the Department of Education to be held liable for its responsibility in this wrongful death.”
Rubenstein cited the lack of metal detectors in the school and the failure to enforce the state and city anti-bullying laws.
Cedeno and his mother, Luz Hernandez, complained repeatedly about the bullying he endured. But Cedeno told therapists that while he was regularly taunted as a “faggot” and “girl” in his classes and was getting his long hair pulled, no teacher or counselor ever did anything to stop it.
According to a report to the judge by Friends of the Island Academy, a Rikers-associated youth re-entry program where Cedeno was getting help while out on bail, he told that group he “learned to take a hit” and “was grateful that no bones were broken.” His school counselor, identified as Mr. Ray, “told Abel and his mother to ‘ignore it’ [the bullying], ‘that’s how boys are,’ and ‘be smarter than them.’” As the report said, “Not only was that bad advice, but against state, federal, and local laws.”
Another counselor at the school, identified as Mr. Keating in the report, “told Abel to ‘be strong,’ however Abel noted that Mr. Keating did not know how to address the bullying in an effective way. Students began targeting Mr. Keating and Abel, spreading rumors that Abel was dating Mr. Keating and detailing made-up stories of sexual contact between Abel and his teacher… Abel noted that even the ‘teachers at the school were afraid of other bullies.’”
As Gay City News reported, Cedeno essentially dropped out of school for a year before trying to return to school to finish. He and his family begged the DOE’s District Office for a transfer out of Wildlife Conservation on three occasions, but the DOE rep told Abel’s stepfather, “Abel belongs in Wildlife and we cannot change it.” One “good” thing coming out of this enormous tragedy is that the DOE now says it will transfer students when they feel unsafe in school.
Cedeno’s traumas led him to start trying to take his life in ninth grade, and he suffered from suicide ideation even when out on bail and getting help — to the point that he was hospitalized by his family. His psychiatrist at Rikers diagnosed him with PTSD and depression.
Despite all of his trauma, Cedeno is reported to have made great progress in working toward his high school diploma and gaining skills toward a trade. Friends of Island Academy told the judge in a letter that “he understands the gravity of the situation he finds himself in,” but that “nothing in Abel’s record indicates that he is a flight risk or that he would not complete any community program to protect and better his future.”
Pleas for Youthful Offender status for Cedeno were sent from Councilmembers Dromm and Ruben Diaz, Sr., State Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell, the Department of Correction’s own Division of Youthful Offender Programming, former State Senator Tom Duane, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, the youth-led advocacy group FIERCE, and the Fortune Society, a group that works with ex-offenders that wrote it would accept Cedeno “as a voluntary or mandatory participant” in its programs. Justice Gross rejected their arguments.
Out gay civil rights attorney Thomas Shanahan, who will amend his civil suit against the city on Cedeno’s behalf, said he was “stunned” by the sentence. Lynn said the message to bullied kids is “you’re on your own.”
Shanahan and Lynn said there are grounds for appeal, especially due to evidence that Gross excluded in the trial about gangs at the school and the pervasive bullying. They expect all this to come out in the civil suits. Shanahan agreed with the judge that “kids should have the right to be safe in school,” but it seems to have taken the death of one student, the disabling of another, and the ruin of Abel Cedeno’s life to wake the DOE up to this fact.
In a statement after the sentencing, the Anti-Violence Project wrote, “From an early age, Abel was bullied by classmates for being gay and school officials failed to address or end the bullying. The inaction of the NYC Department of Education created a climate of increased bullying and lack of safety for Abel and led to the tragic altercation that injured Ariane Laboy and took the life of Matthew McCree.”