Schools Have an Obligation to Protect Against Bullying

Bullying among adolescents is serious behavior that requires serious attention. This was confirmed recently by the State Division on Civil Rights.

Reports on August 31 stated the Division found sufficient evidence to indicate that the Old Bridge Township Board of Education failed to take adequate action to stop reported incidents of bullying at its Jonas Salk Middle School and that the mother of the victim of that bullying may continue her suit against the Board. (1)

The mother’s complaint alleges her son was harassed by other students because of his religious affiliation and what they perceived to be his sexual preference. About 11 individual incidents involving 14 students reportedly occurred against the boy between September 2006 and January 2007. No disciplinary action was taken in two of the incidents because of insufficient information, but the school did dole out punishments ranging from warnings to in-school suspensions in the other incidents. Because these punishments did not stop the bullying, the Division determined the Board had not done enough. (1)

In 2007 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled schools had an obligation to provide safe and non-hostile environments for their students, much like companies have the obligation to provide such workplaces for their employees. This decision was in response to a Toms River, NJ, case in which a student sued the school district, claiming he was bullied to the extent he had to change schools. The disciplinary action the school took in that case also failed to stop the harassment. (2)

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, schools followed guidelines set in Title IX Amendment of the Federal Education Law, which put the onus on the complainant to prove the seriousness of the harassment and that the actions were intentionally ignored by the specific school board. Responding to the Toms River suit, the Division on Civil Rights determined that the Law Against Discrimination (LAD) applied in that situation and the State Supreme Court agreed. (3)

Under LAD, a case can be made against a school district when the district knows about the harassment but does not take quick and effective action to stop it. The court wanted school districts to address the school environment on the whole and not just address case-by-case issues. (3)

In Old Bridge Township, the Division found the school addressed only the individual incidents and did not take proactive measures to prevent this behavior school-wide. (1)

(1) http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2010/08/bullying_lawsuit_against_old_b.html

(2) http://www.aclu.org/lgbt-rights_hiv-aids/new-jersey-supreme-court-rules-schools-must-protect-students-bias-based-bullyin

(3) http://www.law.com/jsdp/law/LawArticleFriendly.jsp?id=1172570588274