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N.J. School Board Cleared of Blame for Bullying

(CN) - A school board is not liable to a homeless family who says their daughter was spat at, kicked and threatened to be made into a lesbian, a federal judge ruled.

Katina Thomas, guardian ad litem for her daughter, identified in court records only as K.T., sued the East Orange Board of Education in New Jersey Superior Court on Feb. 1, 2012.

According to the undisputed facts, soon after K.T. moved to New Jersey from Georgia and enrolled in the fourth grade at Langston Hughes Elementary in September 2010, she reported that a male student threatened to beat her up because she was "country" and spat in her face.

K.T. also claimed that other students kicked and hit her and spit in her hair that year.

K.T.'s teacher began reporting her and other students' behavior to their parents weekly, but Thomas complained in an April 12 letter that the school was not doing enough to prevent the bullying.

The next day, K.T. used her teacher's scissors to try and stab a male student she claimed had hit her. When the boy denied doing so, K.T. was suspended for two days.

Though K.T. later said that a gay classmate had told her that she was going to make K.T. a lesbian, the assistant principal found evidence suggesting that K.T.'s classmate had merely asked to be friends.

In fall 2011, K.T. and her family moved into a shelter in Newark, N.J., and therapists funded by the Family Crisis Intervention Program diagnosed K.T. with adjustment disorder with a disturbance of emotions and conduct, enuresis, and trichotillomania.

K.T.'s mother soon made unsubstantiated reports that a male student had teased K.T. about her mother's weight and aunt's disability, spit sunflower seeds in K.T.'s locker, and stepped on her hand, and that that two girls had punched K.T. in the eye.

School officials later set up an "escort plan" to ensure K.T.'s safety, but Thomas filed more unproven complaints, alleging that a student called K.T. a "bitch" and a "whore," and that another said he would teach K.T. "how to keep her mouth closed" after she tattled on him.

Other unproven stories include that K.T. was kicked down the stairs, and another time was almost "jumped" by five girls, who later denied the incident.

Thomas sued for violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the federal and state constitutions, as well as for emotional distress. The district's superintendent and 30 anonymous individuals were named as defendants.

U.S. District Judge William Martini granted the defendants summary judgment Thursday, citing precedent that "Southernness" is not protected discrimination class.

Additionally "there is no fundamental right to a public education under the U.S. Constitution," 16-page ruling states.

The court tossed aside the claims under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and 14th Amendments, and the equal protection claim with regard to New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Act of 2011.

"Plaintiff has not produced any evidence showing that defendants treated K.T.'s bullying reports differently than those from any other student from the southern U.S. or any other student who has filed a bullying complaint," Martini wrote. "To the extent that plaintiff argues that K.T. was treated differently than other students who committed acts of bullying, because she was suspended for attempting to stab another student with scissors, the undisputed facts provide a rational basis for any disparate treatment. Plaintiff does not dispute that K.T. grabbed scissors out of her teacher's desk and ran after another student, stopping only when physically restrained by an adult. A teacher, Ms. McKinnon, witnessed the incident. Conversely, K.T.'s allegations of bullying, although investigated, were largely unsubstantiated and did not involve scissors."

Finding that the bullying merely caused K.T. to feel "heart-pounding" pressure, but not sick or otherwise physically injured beyond a black eye and bruises on her arm and leg, the judge also dismissed Thomas' claim for emotional distress.

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