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New Jersey’s Division of Civil Rights Finds Probable Cause For a Student Complaint Alleging Hostile School Environment Based Upon Bias-based Peer Harassment

The New Jersey Division of Civil Rights (NJDCR) recently announced a finding of probable cause in the discrimination complaint filed by the parent of a middle school student claiming that her son was subjected to a hostile school environment based upon harassment by his peers for his perceived sexual orientation and religion. What makes this complaint unique is the NJDCR’s admonishment of the Old Bridge Township Board of Education for its perceived failure to take steps to prevent the bullying and for its criticism of the school’s after the fact actions as inadequate where there were no preventative measures or efforts at broader outreach to ameliorate the situation. This is not a case where the school administration failed to act entirely, but one where it acted ineffectively to stop the bullying as evidenced by the victim’s stated decision to stop reporting the incidents to school officials since it did no good but, rather resulted in him being labeled as a snitch and incited more student harassment against him.

This case involves pervasive bullying based upon the severity and frequency of the activity. It involves dozens of reported incidents of harassment by many different students against the complainant while at school, on the school bus, and outside of school over a period of several years. The allegations include claims that the victim was called derogatory names such as “faggot”, “gay”, “fruit, “stupid Jew” by students and that several students stuffed papers down the front of the victim’s pants, and that  a school employee questioned if he was looking for his purse in the school’s lost and found. The school district specifically denies the allegation involving the employee. However, the school documented 11 reported incidents of harassment consisting mostly of name calling and taunting, but two shoving incidents as well, committed against the complainant/victim by fourteen different students in a four month period.  Twelve students received discipline ranging from a verbal warning to after-school detention to in-house suspension with no action in two of the cases where there was a claimed lack of information. The parents of the student perpetrators were notified by the school of the incident and discipline.

Prior to the years in which the 11 documented incidents occurred, a former principal of the middle school acknowledged additional reports of bullying occurring over an extended period of time while he was principal. The former principal admitted knowledge of the alleged incidents occurring during his tenure and claimed to have verbally addressed the complaints taking no formal disciplinary action. The principal failed to document any of these instances or his actions. Notwithstanding the school administrations’ actions, the NJDCR found sufficient evidence to support a claim that the bullying continued throughout the victim’s tenure as a middle school student under both principals.

What preventative steps has your school district taken to ensure a non-hostile school environment free from bullying and harassment for students? As illustrated by this NJ case, it is no longer sufficient to just have an anti-bullying policy; the time has come to give teeth to your policies.

Berchem, Moses & Devlin has devised an individual case study presentation on the topic of bullying which is available upon request for presentation to teachers and/or administrators.