The New Jersey State Attorney General’s Office, Division on Civil Rights has ordered the Toms River Regional Board of Education to pay a former student more than $68,000 for pain and suffering, plus interest, after concluding that the school district failed to take reasonable actions to stop persistent bullying of the student based on his perceived sexual orientation more than a decade ago. The ruling was handed down on Feb. 28, 2013.
The student, who was identified only by the initials L.W., filed a formal complaint with the Division on Civil Rights alleging that the Toms River Regional District had failed to respond effectively when students repeatedly bullied him because of his perceived homosexuality.
The case has been in and out of the courts since its original filing and was appealed on several occasions. Testimony and documentation introduced during hearings on the L.W. case over the years showed that taunts directed at L.W. based on his perceived sexual orientation began when he was in fourth grade. Throughout junior high and high school, L.W. was verbally harassed and mocked, and on numerous occasions physically assaulted.
The Division investigated, and in July 2000, issued a Finding of Probable Cause against the school district. In July 2004, the Division found Toms River schools liable for failing to properly address the harassment, but the district appealed. In 2005 the Appellate Division upheld the Division’s conclusion, and found that, despite evidence that Toms River schools had not ignored the harassment of L.W., it had failed to effectively respond to the problem. However, the school district successfully petitioned the N.J. Supreme Court to review the matter, and to determine whether the school district could be held liable in such a circumstance.
In one incident cited by the Supreme Court, a student grabbed L.W.’s “private area” in front of other students and engaged in sexually suggestive movements against L.W.’s body while taunting him by asking repeatedly “Do you like it like this?” On another occasion, L.W. was punched in the face and threatened with stabbing if he reported the attack. On another occasion, outside a convenience store in downtown Toms River, L.W. was shoved to the ground, threatened with a beating and then covered with dirt by a fellow student at Toms River South High School. He withdrew from attending school in Toms River the next day.
The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that a school district may be held responsible for failing to take action “reasonably calculated to end the harassment” of a student.
“Students in the classroom are entitled to no less protection from unlawful discrimination and harassment than their adult counterparts in the workplace,” noted the Supreme Court opinion, which was written by Chief Justice James R. Zazzali.
However, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings on the question of what would have constituted “reasonable action” by the Toms River district given the “totality of the circumstances” at the time which was decided upon by Civil Rights Director Graig T. Sashihara.