Old Bridge School District Agrees To $75,000 Settlement In Bullying Case

John J. Hoffman

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman

TRENTON –  The Board of Education in Old Bridge has agreed to pay a former student $60,000 to resolve allegations the
school district did not effectively address alleged harassment and bullying of the student that went on for approximately four years, Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced today.

As part of the settlement, the school district will pay the Division on Civil Rights $15,000. The settlement also calls for implementation of bias-based harassment awareness, training and complaint policies district-wide.

“This is a fair settlement that resolves disturbing allegations — that a young man went to school each day for a period of years and, on many of those days, endured intense verbal harassment and even physical assaults. 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,” said Hoffman.

“This agreement was the result of a mediation presided over by an administrative law judge,” said Craig Sashihara, director of the state Division on Civil Rights. “I’m grateful to the administrative law judge for his many hours of hard work. Our main focus was to ensure that any agreement require the school district to implement policies, procedures, and training protocols designed to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.”

Named as sole Respondent in a Complaint filed jointly by the student’s mother and the Division on Civil Rights, the Old Bridge district is made up of 15 schools, including 12 elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school.

The Complaint and a related Finding of Probable Cause issued by the Division on Civil Rights alleged that Old Bridge schools did not adequately deal with continued harassment of the male student – identified as H.D. – that began when the victim entered Jonas Salk Middle School in the fall of 2004, persisted throughout his three years in the middle school, and continued even into his time at Old Bridge High School.

The alleged harassment of H.D. occurred at school, on the school bus and on the Internet, and included name-calling, derogatory comments and physical contact. Most of the alleged harassment was focused on H.D.’s perceived sexual orientation, although some reported harassment incidents involved his Jewish faith. H.D.’s mother identified more than 50 students who she alleged participated in bullying her son at one time or another. The school district’s own documentation showed that, during one stretch, there were at least 11 reported incidents of harassment involving 14 different students.

In one incident, two students allegedly grabbed H.D. in the school locker room and stuffed papers down his pants. In two other, unrelated incidents, H.D. was shoved by other students. Allegedly, he was also a regular target for such slurs as “fag,” and “fruit,” and was derided for eating “Jew food.”

In two of the alleged harassment incidents documented by the school, no action was taken because administrators were unable to obtain reliable information about who was involved. 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. persisted, and the Division’s Finding of Probable Cause cited Old Bridge schools for dealing with the problem only through “after-the-fact” discipline, without any prevention measures or attempts at broader outreach to students.

In addition, a former principal at Jonas Salk Middle School – now retired – acknowledged to Division on Civil Rights investigators that he once counseled H.D. to consider transferring to another school, and also recalled telling the youth he would understand if he chose to respond to his tormentors physically.

In addition to the $75,000 total payout, the settlement calls for Old Bridge schools to have and distribute to all staff, parents and students a written anti-discrimination policy, a written discrimination complaint procedure, and a written policy on student harassment, intimidation and bullying.

The district also will implement a bias-based harassment prevention program that includes an awareness component for all students at the middle and high school levels, and an awareness and training component for all staff and administration.

The bias-based harassment prevention program is to be separate and apart from any prevention program designed to address bullying generally.

Deputy Attorney General Marisa Slaten and Investigator Agnes Roncaglio handled the Old Bridge Board of Education matter on behalf of the State.

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