NEWARK (CN) – Two New Jersey school districts face federal lawsuits accusing them of failing to stop bullying so severe it left children depressed and emotionally withdrawn – and one in the hospital.
In Newark, plaintiffs D.O. and D.O. say they noticed problems with their child, C.O., who came home each day from Pine Lake Elementary School bruised crying and depressed.
C.O. eventually “indicated to his parents that his classmates were bullying him both at school and after school due to the perception that C.O. was ‘gay,'” according to the complaint.
“On a daily basis during this time C.O. was called ‘gay,’ ‘fag’ and ‘girl’ by his classmates. C.O. was also completely ostracized and shunned by his classmates and was forced to spend all time at school alone due to his classmates’ perception that C.O. was gay. During the aforementioned time period, C.O., was asked by numerous classmates, often many times in a single day as to whether he was ‘gay.’ The other students’ contempt for C.O. would often be displayed before large groups of his peers and he was constantly laughed at and demeaned due to his perceived sexual orientation.”
The parents claim their son also was harassed by a school volunteer and neighbor, defendant Lori Klein, the mother of B.K., whom they call the bully “ringleader.”
Klein would “glare” at the C.O. plaintiff and told the school principal, defendant Pamela Longo, that the boy was gay, according to the complaint.
The parents say that after seeing the bruises on their son, and seeing other children, including B.K., yelling anti-gay insults at C.O. from their own front lawn, they asked principal Longo to do something to rectify the situation.
But despite repeated requests for Longo to help, the parents say, the bullying continued. After frequent meetings and telephone calls, they say, Longo “advised D.O. that he should consider taking C.O. to ‘another school district.'”
With the parents “desperate to stop the harassment and abuse of their son at Pine Lakes, D.O. and D.O. met with Director of Elementary Schools for the District, [defendant] Maryrose Caulfield-Sloan. At this meeting D.O. and D.O. complained that their son was being subject to relentless harassment and bullying due to his perceived sexual orientation. In response to their concerns, Dr. Caulfield-Sloan advised D.O. and D.O. to enroll C.O. in sports in an area away from the district so that his classmates would not have the opportunity to harass and abuse him. Dr. Caulfield-Sloan also advised D.O. and D.O. that C.O. should attempt to ‘make new friends.'”
But the parents say their son was assaulted again, this time on a school bus, with a metal seat belt. They say they contacted the former Superintendent of Schools for Passaic County and the Interim Superintendent, defendant James Campbell.
But they say that after being assured by both superintendents that the incidents were being looked into, nothing changed and their son continued to be bullied.
Eventually, “D.O. and D.O. were forced to remove C.O. from the district entirely in an effort to protect their son,” the parents say.
They say they sold their house and enrolled their son in a new school. There, they say, he flourished, was taken out of special education classes, and made the honor roll.
The Wayne Public School District and its Board of Education are the lead defendants in this complaint. The family seeks punitive damages for violations of the Constitution, Title IX, and state civil rights law. They are represented by Richard Villanova with Blume, Goldfaden, Berkowitz, Donnelly, Fried & Forte, of Jersey City.
In a second complaint, in Trenton, plaintiffs Anthony and Robin K. claim that their son, M.K., suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and a complete emotional breakdown, requiring hospitalization, after school officials failed to intervene when he was “systematically bullied” at Branchburg Central Middle School.
The Ks say they learned that their son was being bullied when another student told her parents, who immediately told them, that their son “was choked almost to the point of unconsciousness” on a school bus, by a sixth-grader who had been held back a year.
The Ks say they promptly reported the incident to defendant Corby Swan, the vice principal.
Assuming, incorrectly, that the situation had been nipped in the bud, the parents say, they were concerned when they “witnessed a dramatic change in the personality and emotional well-being of their son [M]. [M’s] interests in school, as well as his ability to concentrate and perform at school, decreased dramatically. His emotions and behavior deteriorated – – he grew angry and depressed. His parents watched as he was losing all of his self-esteem and self-worth; they saw the ‘spark’ having left him,” according to the complaint.
Eventually, the parents say, the bullying took such a toll on their son that he suffered a complete emotional breakdown and was hospitalized for it.
He was diagnosed with PTSD, and a medical report, documented for the school district, stated that the disorder was caused by “multiple incidents of bullying on the school bus,” that M. needed to be “accommodated with out-of-district placement immediately” and that the Branchburg School District had been “totally ignorant” of M’s disorder and situation for 10 months.
But instead of assisting the family, defendants Branchburg Township Board of Education and principal William Feldman verbally attacked the family, challenged their credibility, filed false truancy charges against M. and reported the family to the Department of Youth and Family Services, according to the complaint.
As a result, M. was “left back” and was forced to repeat sixth grade, the family says.
Also named as defendants are Superintendent Kenneth J. Knops, Transportation Supervisor Robert Cline, the Somerset County Educational Services Commission, Director of Somerset County Educational Services Commission Wendy LaFontaine, and Superintendent of Somerset County Educational Services Commission Harold Dunsavage.
The Ks seek compensatory and punitive damages for negligence, malicious prosecution, violation of civil rights, discrimination, violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and violations of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
They are represented by Patrick Whalen.