|3-25-14 Major Anti-Bullying Ruling|
Star Ledger - Bullies beware: Groundbreaking ruling allows schools to sue students who harass peers ...'In a groundbreaking case that puts school bullies and their parents on notice, a Superior Court judge has ruled that two Hunterdon County school districts may file suit against students who torment their peers...'
Star Ledger - Bullies beware: Groundbreaking ruling allows schools to sue students who harass peers
Mark Mueller/The Star-Ledger By Mark Mueller/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
In a groundbreaking case that puts school bullies and their parents on notice, a Superior Court judge has ruled that two Hunterdon County school districts may file suit against students who torment their peers.
Attorneys involved in the case say the decision by Judge Yolanda Ciccone — the assignment judge for Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties — could spur similar suits across the state.
They say it also delivers a strong message that parents may be held legally liable when their children taunt, tease or physically harass classmates.
"This raises important public and social policy issues," said Robert Gold, a Morristown lawyer who represents the Hunterdon Central Regional School District. "Parents have to monitor the conduct of their children, and when parents are made aware that their children are behaving badly, they have to take some affirmative steps to guide them."
Gold called the case the first of its kind under New Jersey’s tough new anti-bullying law.
In her decision, Ciccone said Hunterdon Central and the Flemington-Raritan Regional School District could name 13 students and their parents as third-party defendants in a bullying suit.
The alleged victim, identified by the initials V.B., sued the districts under the bullying law last year, alleging they failed to stop harassing behavior despite years of complaints. V.B., now believed to be 18, did not sue the individual students.
Gold and Jeffrey Shanaberger, the attorney for the Flemington-Raritan district, argued in court that the alleged bullies and their parents should at least share in the culpability if V.B. proves his claims at trial.
The districts deny they failed to take action.
By bringing the students and their parents into the case, the districts potentially limit the financial damage if V.B. prevails because the students could be found equally culpable.
"The jury will be asked to decide which of the various defendants are responsible for the plaintiff’s damages, and the jury will have to assign a percentage of fault," Shanaberger said. "The pie always has to be 100 percent, so whatever is allocated to the students will not be allocated to the school district."
The judge’s March 12 decision, first reported by the New Jersey Law Journal, denied a motion by the alleged bullies to dismiss the school district’s third-party suit against them.
Ciccone wrote that if negligence did occur, it appeared to be intertwined between the students and the districts.
"Both acts of negligence were required here for plaintiff to suffer harm," she wrote.
In the initial lawsuit against the districts, V.B. claims he had been mercilessly berated by classmates since the fourth grade at the Copper Hill School in East Amwell. The abuse continued, he said, at the Reading-Fleming Intermediate School, at J.P. Case Middle School and at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, all in Flemington.
Significantly overweight, he was repeatedly teased and told to "put down the box of Twinkies and exercise." Students called him "chubbs," "lardo" and "flubber," among other taunts, he said.
In the sixth grade, the suit states, two classmates pulled down his pants to expose his underwear, and another youth threw sauce-covered pasta on him at lunch.
By the seventh grade, classmates made fun of his long hair and began calling him gay, V.B. said. In gym class, one student threw kickballs at his groin. A year later, he developed anorexia, suffering a "dramatic, debilitating weight loss," according to the suit.
The abuse continued at the high school, the teen said, with classmates referring to him as "caveman" because of the hair on his legs. The alleged bullies continued the taunts on Facebook.
Through the years, the teen and his mother repeatedly complained to teachers and administrators, who failed to adequately address the bullying, V.B. said in his suit.
Because of the ongoing abuse, the suit states, the district allowed him to graduate after his junior year.
Star-Ledger staff writer Lisa Rose contributed to this report.
Garden State Coalition of Schools