School District To Pay $75,000 To Settle Pupil's Bullying Claims
A school district in central New Jersey will pay $75,000 to settle claims that it looked the other way while a student was bullied based on his religion and perceived sexual orientation.
The Old Bridge district also will implement harassment awareness, training and complaint policies.
The student will receive $60,000 of the recovery, with the rest going to the state Division on Civil Rights, which brought the complaint, acting Attorney General John Hoffman announced on Wednesday.
The complaint said the student, known as H.D., while attending Jonas Salk Middle School and later Old Bridge High School from 2004 to 2007, was taunted with slurs such as "fag" and "fruit" and was derided for eating "Jew food." His mother identified 50 students who allegedly participated.
Old Bridge officials dealt with the harassment only with after-the-fact discipline, the division claimed.
Twelve students were disciplined and their punishments included verbal warnings, after-school detention and in-school suspensions.
The division charged Old Bridge with denying access to a public accommodation on the basis of a protected status, in violation of the Law Against Discrimination.
Division Director Craig Sashihara says his main focus in requiring the implementation of new policies was to prevent a repeat of the incidents.
David Rubin, a Metuchen solo who concentrates on education law, says the allegations bear "a striking resemblance" to those in L.W. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education, 189 N.J. 381 (2007).
There, the Supreme Court held that a school district could be liable under the LAD for student-on-student harassment.
That court also held that the standard for peer-to-peer harassment at school is the same as for workplace harassment under Lehmann v. Toys 'R' Us, 132 N.J. 587 (1993). Under that standard, a school is liable if it has actual knowledge of the harassment and does not promptly and effectively act to stop it.
The Toms River district was ordered to pay $50,000 in damages plus $28,175 in counsel fees to the former student, plus $10,000 to the state.
The Old Bridge and Toms River cases were based on conduct that took place before enactment of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act in 2011.
A prior version of the law didn't require the same level of investigation, reporting and accountability that the current law does, says Rubin.
At present, any bullying claim must be investigated promptly, and a written report submitted to the superintendent and school board, regardless of whether bullying was found, Rubin says.
The current statute helps to detect ongoing patterns of behavior quickly that might have previously gone unnoticed when incidents were treated in isolation, Rubin says.
"With all the reporting responsibilities of staff, multiple levels of internal review, appeal rights of parents, and proactive preventive measures now built into the law, it's highly unlikely that a longstanding pattern of harassment like this could exist," he adds.
The harassment of H.D. occurred at school, on the school bus and online, and included name-calling, derogatory comments and physical contact.
In one such incident, two students grabbed H.D. in the locker room and stuffed papers down his pants.
And a retired principal at Jonas Salk acknowledged to state investigators that he once counseled H.D. to consider transferring to another school, and said it would be understandable if the boy retaliated against his tormentors physically.
"No young person should be subjected to this kind of treatment. As we enter a new school year, hopefully this case will serve as a reminder that the state takes this issue very seriously," Hoffman said in a statement.
The school district's attorney in the case, Richard Ulsamer of Tompkins, McGuire, Wachenfeld & Barry in Newark, declines to comment.
Schools Superintendent David Cittadino did not return a call.