New Jersey Schools Told to Protect Gay Students

The following is from an article by Tina Kelley that appeared yesterday in the NYT:

“Students who are bullied by other students because of their sexual orientation are protected by New Jersey’s antidiscrimination law, and school districts must take reasonable steps to stop such harassment, the state’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.

“Students in the classroom are entitled to no less protection from the unlawful discrimination and harassment than their adult counterparts in the workplace,” according to the opinion, written by Chief Justice James R. Zazzali.

In the case in question, known as L. W. v. the Board of Education of the Toms River Regional Schools, an anonymous student said that he was taunted with antihomosexual epithets from the time he was in fourth grade until he was in high school and that he was physically attacked twice in high school. Because of the harassment, he contends, he eventually had to change schools.

District policy called for offending students to be punished after a third offense, although they could be punished for being late to class by one minute on the first offense.

In 1999, L. W.’s mother filed a complaint against the district with the state’s Division on Civil Rights, and various appeals ensued. The opinion issued yesterday found that districts must take actions “reasonably calculated to end the harassment.”

Under the ruling, such actions will have to be determined case by case, considering how quickly school officials respond to harassment, its frequency and severity, and the maturity of the children involved.

“We’re pleased with the decision we got today,” said Thomas E. Monahan, a lawyer for the Toms River school board, “because it establishes a standard for student-on-student harassment that takes into account the age of the students and the circumstances of the harassment.”

The case will now be sent to the Office of Administrative Law to determine if the schools protected the student reasonably according to the standards at the time. In 2002, New Jersey passed antibullying legislation, while this case was in court.

Lawrence S. Lustberg, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which participated in the case, called the ruling unique because it requires schools to take particular actions to prevent bullying.

“The application of the Law Against Discrimination to bullying in general and antigay or lesbian bullying in particular is yet another sign of the progressiveness of this excellent court,” he said.

Lee Moore, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, which represented the State Division on Civil Rights, said, “We applaud the court for issuing a decision that recognizes the promise of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to eradicate the ‘cancer of discrimination.’ ”

Eliza Byard, the deputy executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, based in New York, said: “Having a policy is not enough. Schools must implement their policies to ensure that each student is free from fear when entering a schoolhouse.”

She said that when antibullying policies are enforced, students are more likely to stay in school and do well there. According to her organization, which focuses on safe schools for all students, New Jersey is one of nine states with laws that protect students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation.”

New Jersey Schools Told to Protect Gay Students