New Jersey public schools can be held liable for repeated, prolonged student-on-student sexual harassment, the state Supreme Court ruled this week in a case brought by a boy who contended he was victimized by years of homophobic taunts and attacks until he finally withdrew from school.
The court ruled unanimously that New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination was intended to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation, and that it is up to school districts to take reasonable steps to stop ongoing mistreatment.
Chief Justice James Zazzali wrote that students are entitled to a hostile-free education environment, much like employees are entitled to hostile-free work environments.
While schools are not required to purge their institutions of all peer harassment to avoid liability, the ruling says they are mandated to “implement effective preventative and remedial measures to curb severe or pervasive discriminatory mistreatment.”
The decision caps a discrimination suit brought by a student against the Toms River Regional School District. The student, identified in court filings as L.W., contended he endured name-calling and other sexual harassment beginning in the fourth grade. The taunts escalated to physical assaults that did not end until the boy withdrew to attend private school as a high school freshman, at the district’s expense.
The district employed progressive disciplinary action against some offending students, the filings show, but the reprimands were student-specific and were not accompanied by any organized reinforcement of the district’s anti-discrimination policy.
The state Division on Civil Rights awarded the boy $50,000 in emotional distress damages, which was affirmed on appeal and still stands. However, the Appellate Division reversed the portion of the Civil Rights order requiring districtwide remedial measures, saying the record did not demonstrate a districtwide problem. The split at the Appellate level meant the appeal automatically went to the Supreme Court.
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