Andrew Rubin, Esq.

New Jersey school district is liable for failing to stop bullying

Discrimination is illegal under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination Act as well as many federal laws, including the commonly cited Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. When we discuss violations of these laws in this Civil Litigation and Appeals Blog, we are most often talking about discrimination in employment. Discrimination, however, is outlawed in a number of other venues as well. A case that just closed in New Jersey reminds us of this.

A school district in Ocean County has been ordered to pay $68,000 to a former student who was bullied relentlessly in its schools because of his perceived sexual orientation. The case made it all the way to The Supreme Court, which found that students in a classroom--just like employees in a workplace--are entitled to protection against unlawful discrimination and harassment.

The former student was subjected to bullying and harassment from his peers on the basis of his perceived sexual orientation beginning in fourth grade in the Toms River District. The verbal harassment and physical and sexual abuse continued throughout high school, until he suddenly withdrew from the school after being beaten and threatened by another student.

In 1999, the former student filed a complaint with the Division on Civil Rights regarding the district's failure to respond when students bullied him. After an investigation, the division said the district was liable for failing to adequately address the harassment, but the district appealed.

Ultimately, the case made it to The Supreme Court, which ruled that a school district is responsible if it does not take action to end student-to-student harassment. This is similar to what is true in the workplace--if a worker harasses another worker and the victim reports this to a supervisor, the employer is required by law to properly address the harassment.

The court sent the case back to the Division on Civil Rights, which this week ordered the district to pay the former student for his pain and suffering, as well as cover his legal fees.

In this case, the district did not fail to respond. But, it responded by counseling the bullies, which was ineffective. Legally, a school district is not asked to protect students from each possible instance of harassment, but districts are required to take meaningful action to protect the students in its care.

Those who experience discrimination or harassment in school, at work, or in other areas may benefit from seeking legal counsel.

Source: The Bergen Dispatch, "N.J. school ordered to pay $68k in bullying case," Feb. 28, 2013

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