New Jersey Supreme Court Rules That Schools Must Protect Students from Bias-Based Bullying
NEWARK, NJ - In a major victory for student rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey praised a decision released today by the New Jersey Supreme Court that extends anti-discrimination protections to schoolchildren subjected to bias-based bullying and harassment.
"Bullying can be enormously destructive to students emotionally and psychologically," said ACLU of New Jersey Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "This decision requires schools to take necessary steps to ensure that students are protected from bias-based harassment and makes clear that schools must address the entire school environment instead of merely viewing specific incidents of bullying as isolated events."
The ACLU of New Jersey and several other child advocacy organizations filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief supporting a student's claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and describing the negative impact that peer harassment and bullying have on students and the school environment. The New Jersey Supreme Court sided with the student - who remains anonymous and is known only as "L.W." -- and firmly stated that schools may be liable under the Law Against Discrimination for permitting student-on-student biased-based harassment.
"Students in the classroom are entitled to no less protection from unlawful discrimination and harassment than their adult counterparts in the workplace," wrote Chief Justice James R. Zazzali in a unanimous opinion. "[R]easonable measures are required to protect our youth, a duty that schools are more than capable of performing. [W]e require school districts to implement effective preventive and remedial measures to curb severe or pervasive discriminatory mistreatment. Appropriate and reasonable measures will reinforce the basic principle that student-on-student sexual harassment is unacceptable."
As described in the decision, L.W., a student in the Toms River, New Jersey schools, was subjected to anti-gay peer harassment and bullying based on his perceived sexual orientation. As he progressed through school, the harassment increased in frequency and severity and, consequently, he transferred to another school district. In July 2004, the Director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights issued an order stating that the Law Against Discrimination protected L.W. from harassment, using the same standard that applies to employment discrimination. The Toms River school board appealed the decision to the appellate court, which decided in L.W.'s favor. It then appealed that decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
ACLU of New Jersey cooperating attorneys Emily Goldberg and Larry Lustberg of Gibbons P.C. filed the brief on behalf of the ACLU of New Jersey, the Association for Children of New Jersey, the Education Law Center, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Northern New Jersey, the National Conference for Community and Justice (NJ), New Jersey Family Voices, Roxbury Parents for Exceptional Children and Statewide Parents Advocacy Network of New Jersey.
The case is L.W. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education, A-111-05.
The New Jersey Supreme Court decision is available at: www.judiciary.state.nj.us/opinions/supreme/A-111-05.pdf