Parents of bullies allowed to be sued by two Hunterdon school districts

hateA Superior Court judge’s ruling last week on a bullying lawsuit in Hunterdon County could result in serious consequences for parents of school-age children throughout the state. In a 12-page decision, Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone allowed two Hunterdon County districts to hold the parents of nearly a dozen alleged bullies potentially responsible in a lawsuit filed against the districts last year by the parents of a bullied Hunterdon Central Regional High School student. The lawsuit, which details persistent bullying since the fourth grade resulting in the teen’s three-month hospitalization two years ago, named the regional high school district as well as the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District, claiming damages under the state’s 2011 anti-bullying law and the state’s Law Against Discrimination. In turn, the districts argued that if they eventually are found responsible in court, the parents of the alleged bullies also should be made to pay up — an argument that Ciccone accepted. Brian Cige, the Somerville-based attorney representing the bullied student and his parents, called Ciccone’s decision “significant” in the largely uncharted territory of bullying case law.
“I think this decision sends a strong message to parents and kids to think twice before they bully, especially after they have been called out on it,” Cige said Monday. “They are risking dire financial consequences.” The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act is considered one of the most aggressive in the nation and requires school employees to immediately report instances of bullying to the school principal, who must investigate. As a result of the law, anti-bullying lessons are part of the curriculum, districts task certain employees with implementing the law and schools must report on their efforts to the state. This month the state Department of Education for the first time released self-reported anti-bullying grades for every school. The student, who only is identified by initials in court documents, claims he was subjected to a hostile school environment since his fourth-grade year in 2005-06 at Cooper Hill School. The bullying — which included taunts about his weight and the perception that he was gay — continued at Reading-Fleming Intermediate School, J.P. Case School and then the high school.
The complaint says the boy’s parents reached out to teachers, school administrators, Raritan Township police officers and some of the bullies’ parents — all to no avail.
The boy eventually developed the eating disorder anorexia, which left him in the hospital for three months. The lawsuit further faults Hunterdon Central for failing to accommodate the boy’s disability by forcing him to take physical education classes even though it was medically necessary for him to gain weight. The school districts sued the parents of the alleged bullies under the New Jersey Joint Tortfeasors Contribution Law, arguing that they should share liability. The districts also argued that some of the alleged bullying occurred off school grounds, including on Facebook. The parents argued that the state’s anti-bullying law does not provide for individual liability and that school districts are responsible for students during school hours. In her decision, Ciccone says that the districts “state that discovery will show that the parents were made aware of the conduct of their children and any failure to act may be deemed willful or wanton behavior.” She says the school districts’ “negligence is only made evident by occurrence of” the parents’ and bullies’ “negligence.” “Both acts of negligence where required here for plaintiff to suffer harm,” she said. The school districts’ “failure to adequately respond to plaintiff’s complaints of bullying allowed further bullying to take place. Written by Sergio Bichao@sbichao – Mar. 18, 2014
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