New Jersey Education Rights Non-Profit Investigates Public School Compliance with Bullying Law
Investigation stems from reports to Montclair-based Innisfree Foundation of school officials’ inconsistent application of New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act to student and administrator conduct in Bloomfield, Hackettstown, and Sayreville
Aug. 15, 2017 (Montclair, N.J.) – The Innisfree Foundation, a New Jersey 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which assists New Jersey families with advocating for their children’s education rights, today announced a new statewide investigation focused on public school officials’ compliance with New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (“ABR”), specifically investigations of allegations of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (“HIB”) that public school officials are required to undertake under the ABR.
In January 2011, the New Jersey Legislature passed the ABR which, among other things, requires school districts to implement policies concerning “harassment, intimidation or bullying,” and to investigate instances where that conduct is alleged to have occurred. The ABR defines “harassment, intimidation, or bullying” to be:
- “[A]ny gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that
- takes place on school property, at any school sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds . . . that
- substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that:
- a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property;
- has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or
- creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.”
“We have become aware of instances where school officials either declined to initiate an HIB investigation into conduct that appeared likely on its face to be the type prohibited by the HIB law, or where school officials instituted HIB proceedings against students whose conduct we believe surely was not the type that the New Jersey Legislature sought to prohibit by enacting the law, in some case for entirely improper purposes,” said John Rue, of the law firm John Rue & Associates, Innisfree’s General Counsel and also its attorney in litigation matters against public schools across the state. “As a result, we are launching a statewide investigation to determine whether these instances are isolated, or if they reflect a systemic problem.”
Innisfree’s investigation is based upon three particular reports it has received concerning HIB investigations and proceedings by school districts across the state:
- In Bloomfield, Essex County, a gender-nonconforming student had allegedly been the victim of bullying by his classmates for at least one year. Despite allegedly being physically and verbally bullied consistently–-solely because he is gender nonconforming–-Bloomfield school officials did not find any violations of the HIB law by his classmates in connection with their conduct toward this student. Innisfree referred the student’s parent to counsel who, through an Open Public Records Act request and a related lawsuit filed in Superior Court, assisted (without cost to the client) in obtaining access to bullying investigation records (with personally identifiable information redacted) for all Bloomfield Public School children over a period of four (4) school years.
- In Hackettstown, Warren County, a biracial student was subjected to an HIB investigation because, in the context of an in-class discussion about a play during which a corrupt police officer treats two suspects differently based on their economic status, the student referred to the police officer as a “pig.” A classmate of the student is the son of a police officer, but that student was not in the room at the time the comment at issue was made. During the HIB investigation, school officials allegedly made disparaging remarks, including the use of demeaning epithets, to the student about her sexuality and her race.
- In Sayreville, Middlesex County, a student was subject to an HIB investigation, which found her to be guilty of HIB conduct, because, while off-campus, she posted to her own social media account a screen grab from the social media feed of a friend (who is enrolled in another school district) containing a “selfie” the friend took while wearing a mud mask.
“Our primary concern is the consistent application of the ABR as the New Jersey Legislature has intended it, and as New Jersey courts have interpreted it,” said Rue. “New Jersey students deserve to be free from ‘bullying,’ and likewise free from investigations into conduct that no reasonable person could label as bullying, especially where pretextual investigations may violate students’ rights to free speech.”
Innisfree’s investigation will include requests under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”) to school districts across the state for public records concerning those districts’ HIB investigations and proceedings. In collaboration with volunteer attorneys, Innisfree will analyze the content of those records and make them available to families who seek more information about how their own school districts have interpreted the ABR and conducted HIB investigations. To protect students’ identities, Innisfree’s OPRA requests will ask school districts to remove, prior to disclosure, any information that could link the documents to particular students, thus keeping the records anonymous, as required by federal and state privacy laws governing education records.
Contact: Michelle Scanlon, Associate General Counsel, Innisfree Foundation
firstname.lastname@example.org; (800) 983-8715