By: Jennifer Mazawey
Widely recognized as New Jersey’s seminal case on school bullying, this matter was significant because it extended protections from New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination to students and recognized a private cause of action against school districts for violation of the law. The case mandates that reasonable efforts and protections must be taken by schools in preventing bullying and addressing instances of bullying brought to the attention of administrators and school executives.
This lawsuit, originally filed in March of 1999 by a Toms River student (identified as L.W.) as a formal complaint with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, alleged that the Toms River regional district had failed to respond effectively when students repeatedly bullied L.W. because of his perceived sexual orientation. The case was investigated by the Division who rendered a decision in July of 2000. The case went on to be appealed and eventually was heard by the State Supreme Court. Their decision was that the school system was responsible for reasonable protections of the student and remanded the case back to the Division. The Division’s ruling was rendered in 2013, over a decade after the initial filing.
“This decision mandates that schools take reasonable measures to protect those entrusted to their care each and every school day, furthering the intent of the law, which is to eradicate discrimination from New Jersey society,” said Jennifer Mazawey, Partner at Genova Burns. “New Jersey school students deserve an environment in which they feel safe and that fosters their ability to learn, socialize, and eventually become leaders in their communities, their industries, and their society. This case illustrates that schools must protect their students from harassment, and foster an environment of inclusivity and understanding, all with the goal of producing successful leaders of tomorrow.”
In 2013, the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights Director ordered the Toms River Regional Board of Education to pay a former student, identified in court proceedings as L.W., more than $68,000 for pain and suffering. The Division, after multiple levels of appeals and a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, concluded that the Toms River school district failed to take reasonable actions to stop persistent bullying of a student based on his perceived sexual orientation more than a decade prior.
This case began in March 1999 when L.W. filed a formal complaint with the Division on Civil Rights, alleging that the Toms River school district had failed to respond to repeated reports of bullying by peers and fellow students. As part of its regular investigative process, the Division reviewed the case and performed a thorough investigation of the allegations. Subsequently, in July 2000, the Division released a Finding of Probable Cause against the school district which ruled that the school district was liable for failing to properly address the harassment.
The school district appealed the decision, and, in 2005, the New Jersey Appellate Division upheld the decision of the Division on Civil Rights, ruling that “despite evidence that Toms River schools had not ignored the harassment of L.W., it had failed to effectively respond to the problem.” The Toms River school district then successfully petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court to review the case.
After its review of the case, the Supreme Court subsequently ruled that a school district can be held responsible under the Law Against Discrimination for failing to take actions designed to address and bring an end to the student-on-student harassment. The Supreme Court decision, authored by then Chief Justice James R. Zazzali, stated, “Students in the classroom are entitled to no less protection from unlawful discrimination and harassment than their adult counterparts in the workplace.”
The New Jersey Supreme Court remanded the case back to the Division on Civil Rights for further consideration of what constituted “reasonable action” by the Toms River district given the “totality of the circumstances” at the time. Ultimately, the DCR Director upheld a previous ruling that the district’s counseling-based handling of students who subjected L.W. to verbal harassment and physical assault was ineffective and failed to protect L.W. In an order accompanying his decision, the Director found that the Toms River regional district was required to pay a $50,000 judgment to L.W., plus interest.