TRENTON –The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights found that the Old Bridge school district may have violated the Law Against Discrimination by allegedly failing to take sufficient steps to stop the harassment and bullying of a student during his years attending a township middle school.
According to the division, the district failed to deal effectively with the harassment of a Jonas Salk Middle School student – identified only as H.D. because he is a minor – that began in the fall of 2004 and continued through the end of the school year in 2007.
The finding of probable cause allows the civil suit against the school district to go forward. The case will be referred for a process known as conciliation. If conciliation is not successful, the matter will be referred for a non-jury trial before an administrative law judge.
According to the division’s findings, the harassing conduct included derogatory remarks from other students about H.D.’s perceived sexual orientation, as well as his Jewish faith. On one occasion, the student had papers stuffed down the front of his pants by other students. On another occasion, a middle school staff employee allegedly asked him if he was looking for his purse as the youth checked the lost-and-found. The school district has denied that incident.
But the district’s own documentation shows that, during one stretch between early September 2006 and late January 2007, there were at least 11 reported incidents of harassment against H.D. involving 14 different students. In two of the cases, no action was taken because of a lack of information. In the remaining cases, a total of 12 students received discipline ranging from a verbal warning to after-school detention to in-school suspension. However, the bullying of H.D. continued.
The finding of probable cause cites Old Bridge for failing to take affirmative steps to prevent the bullying of H.D., and for dealing with it only via “after-the-fact” discipline, without any prevention measures or efforts at broader outreach to students.
“It appears this student went to school in an extremely hostile atmosphere – a climate in which he was subjected to a level of bias-based harassment and torment that no young person should have to endure,” said Division on Civil Rights Director Chinh Q. Le. “With the new school year about to begin, this is the perfect time to remind school districts they have a duty to create and maintain a safe, nurturing and harassment-free learning environment, and to respond effectively when bullying rears its ugly head.”
H.D. entered Jonas Salk Middle School in September 2004, and the harassment began shortly thereafter. According to a log kept by the youth’s mother and provided to the division, H.D. was repeatedly targeted for such slurs as “fag” and “fruit.” He was also derided for eating “Jew food.” According to the youth and his mother, these taunts and slurs were aimed at him in school, on the school bus, and on the Internet.
In an interview with a division investigator, a former principal at Jonas Salk Middle School – the educator retired in June 2006 — recalled most incidents of reported harassment against H.D. listed in the log. While the ex-principal apparently did suspend two students involved in a locker room incident in which paper was stuffed down H.D.’s pants, he said he generally couldn’t recall what disciplinary action he took upon learning of other bullying episodes. He said he rarely documented such discipline unless it involved conduct serious enough to warrant suspension.
The same former principal acknowledged telling H.D. during one conversation that he’d understand if H.D. elected to respond to his tormentors physically. He also acknowledged recommending that H.D. transfer out of Jonas Salk Middle School and attend the township’s other middle school as a solution.
“No matter how well intended, a suggestion that the victim consider resorting to physical aggression against his tormentors, or that he transfer to another school, is neither an appropriate nor a sufficient means for the school district to deal with the unlawful, harassing conduct of its students,” said Le.
Ultimately, the finding of probable cause notes, H.D. became reticent about even reporting further incidents of harassment and bullying at Jonas Salk Middle School because doing so never improved his situation. In fact, the finding of probable cause notes, the youth felt he was “becoming known as a snitch,” which threatened to make matters worse.
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