NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a petition with the state Department of Education against the Cape May County Special Services School District, a public school district, for segregating students with multiple disabilities based on sex. The petition was filed on behalf of Susan Coll-Guedes, an Atlantic County parent who wanted her son to be placed in a co-educational class because she believes he excels academically and socially in an integrated environment.
For the past several years, the district has provided co-educational classes in all grades for students with multiple disabilities, except for grades six through eight.
“Like any parent, I want my child to be in a nurturing learning environment that is conducive to his education,” said Coll-Guedes. “I believe my son should be in an environment that reflects society and prepares him to be comfortable and confident when interacting with others, including girls.”
Coll-Guedes’s 12-year-old son has attended Ocean Academy in the Cape May County Special Services School District since pre-kindergarten. When he reached sixth grade, she requested that he have classes with girls. The district refused and even rejected compromises, such as having time to interact in the hall with girls.
Coll-Guedes turned to the ACLU-NJ for help. The organization filed a public records request, seeking the district’s policies on single sex classes. The district claimed it did not have any polices segregating students based on sex and instead placed students based on “age, disability and level of functioning.” The complaint alleges that it is not plausible that the school district has made an individualized assessment of all sixth through eighth graders with multiple disabilities that has resulted in sex-segregated classes at Ocean Academy year after year.
“The law requires that all children should have equal access to educational programs, regardless of their sex,” said Frank Corrado, an attorney with Barry, Corrado & Grassi, who, along with ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, represents Coll-Guedes. “Segregating students is a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and it limits opportunities for boys and girls alike.”
Coll-Guedes decided to keep her son back in the fifth grade coeducational class for the current school year. The petition has been filed with the Department of Education, which is expected to transmit it to the Office of Administrative Law for a disposition.
On May 15, the ACLU-NJ withdrew the complaint and submitted a letter to the New Jersey Department of Education and New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, asking officials to investigate the segregation of students at Ocean Academy based on sex.
|Linda Richardson with her daughter
Shaina Harris in front of Burger King
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has filed suit against the Borough of Wanaque after its police department issued a citation to a teenager for violating its juvenile curfew ordinance.
Shaina Harris, 17, was given the citation after she walked to a Burger King located across the street from her home around 11 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2012. Harris had parental permission to visit the restaurant to buy a milkshake.
“Wanaque’s curfew is an assault on the basic constitutional rights of juveniles in the borough to come and go as they please with their parents’ consent,” said Edward Kiel, an attorney in the Hackensack law firm of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard, who is handling the case for the ACLU-NJ. “These curfews wrongfully punish law-abiding people just trying to go about their daily lives freely, like our client.”
Wanaque’s curfew prohibits any juvenile from being in a public location in the town from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., unless they satisfy one of several narrow exceptions set forth in the curfew ordinance.
Harris received her GED at age 16 and was already attending community college at the time of the incident. The Burger King she visited is directly across the street from where the family mailbox is located and garbage is collected.
When Harris walked back from the fast food chain, an officer stopped her near her family’s mailbox and asked why she was outside without adult supervision. Harris called her stepfather, who came immediately. The officer issued Harris a citation for violating the borough’s curfew. The citation carries a $100 fine and potential for 15 hours of community service.
“I was really surprised,” she said. “I had permission from my parents to go out and didn’t realize the police could write me up for something as harmless as walking across the street to Burger King.”
The ACLU-NJ recently represented Harris in municipal court where the court postponed the municipal hearing so that today’s lawsuit challenging the ordinance could be filed.
“I think parents are the ones who should determine and set curfews for their children, not the borough,” said Linda Richardson, the plaintiff in the case on behalf of her daughter. “My daughter already attends college; I trust her to walk across the street to Burger King.”
The ACLU-NJ has challenged juvenile curfews in the past. In 1999, it won an injunction preventing West New York from enforcing its curfew, which prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from being in a public place from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., unless accompanied by their parent or guardian. In 2004, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court upheld the 1999 injunction and ruled that West New York’s ordinance was unconstitutional. The court also recognized there was a “strong constitutional presumption in favor of parental authority over government authority.”
“Criminalizing ordinary, harmless teenage behavior shifts valuable and limited police resources away from crime prevention,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “This juvenile curfew law does not protect communities, but instead needlessly funnels young people into the criminal justice system.”
The lawsuit Richardson v. Borough of Wanaque was filed in Superior Court in Passaic County.
Attorneys David Kohane and David Gold of the Hackensack law firm of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard are also representing Harris.
Newark — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) applauds today’s decision by the state appellate division to strike down a Bergen County school district’s policy that allowed officials to discipline students for activities that occurred outside of a school setting. The ACLU-NJ had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief which explained that New Jersey law prohibits school districts from imposing consequences for off-campus conduct that does not negatively impact school safety.
“A disciplinary policy that seeks to control a student’s conduct 24 hours a day, seven days a week threatens the rights of students and parents both,” said Edward Sholinsky of the law firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, who along with colleagues Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon and Sam Silver, wrote the amicus curiae brief for the ACLU-NJ. “The court’s decision represents a key first step in tempering student discipline policies that are overreaching.”
The court’s decision, which upholds prior rulings by an Administrative Law Judge and the Commissioner of Education, sets an important precedent against so-called “24/7” school discipline policies, a growing trend in which districts have tried to exercise greater power over students outside the classroom. The appellate division held that New Jersey statutes do not grant “unlimited power to boards of education to impose disciplinary consequences on students for conduct occurring away from school grounds” but, rather, limit that power only to situations where “there is a close nexus between the misconduct and the school.”
The policy at issue in this case, known as regulation 6145, was passed by Board of Education for the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District. The policy called for students to be removed from extracurricular activities for wrongdoing outside of school -- even if the allegations were unsubstantiated. The district argued that it could take such administrative actions because participation in extracurricular activities is a privilege, not a right. The appellate division properly rejected that argument, stating, “The Board's clear intent in adopting regulation 6145 was to use the control it has over students' participation in extracurricular activities as a form of discipline to enforce its code of conduct.”
“Schools play a dominant role for most children, but that unique status does not grant them carte blanche in the lives of students,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “The close institutional ties between a school system and a young person do not extend authority to administrators in spheres entirely separate from the academic environment. Unless a student’s behavior outside of school directly and substantially disrupts the school, discipline rests with the parents and the juvenile justice system.”
The decision in the case, captioned GDM v. Board of Education of the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District, can be read online, as can the ACLU-NJ’s amicus brief.
NEWARK – An honor roll student who was suspended from middle school in 2008 because he had an allergy tablet in his backpack will have his record expunged. Pinelands Regional School District in Ocean County has agreed to remove the suspension from the student’s record in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ).
The ACLU-NJ and the school district settled the lawsuit in May. As part of the settlement, the district also agreed to end its zero tolerance drug policy, by eliminating mandatory suspensions for possession of drugs.
“Zero tolerance policies violate New Jersey law and the due process rights of students,” said Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado and Grassi, P.C., who represented the student on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “We hope this case serves as a lesson for all school districts.”
Under New Jersey law, a school official cannot impose automatic discipline on a student without taking into account the age of the student, his or her discipline history, and the severity of the offense. The only exceptions that would permit immediate suspension or expulsion are for offenses that involve firearms, assaults with weapons or assaults on employees.
The student, P.P., whose identity is protected because he is a juvenile, was in the eighth grade when he was suspended on April 17, 2008. School officials suspended the student for five days after discovering a single over-the-counter allergy tablet inadvertently left in his backpack. In addition to suspending the student, the district stripped him of his membership in the school honor society and barred him from participating in music activities.
“School officials went overboard by treating my son like a criminal for having an allergy pill in his backpack,” said Anne Spollen, who is P.P.’s mother. “I’m relieved that this suspension will be removed from his record and am glad that the district has changed its policy to prevent this from happening again.”
After the suspension, Spollen said other students treated her son differently based on rumors that he had been suspended for drug possession, but the students didn’t realize the drug that landed him in trouble was an allergy pill.
“It became tough with his peers and it had a deleterious effect on him,” Spollen said. “He was in the honor society, but everyone thought he did drugs. He never did drugs.”
Spollen’s son is now a high school senior and will be attending Stockton College in the fall.
NEWARK — Although we do not agree with the sentiments expressed on Union Township teacher Viki Knox’s personal Facebook page, her beliefs and comments are protected by the First Amendment. But because her postings raise questions about her conduct within school, the school district can and should investigate whether she is performing her job in accordance with school policies and the state's Law Against Discrimination.
The ACLU believes that the response to offensive speech is not the restriction of speech, but more speech, which is why the ACLU has created programs like the "Don’t Filter Me" project, which ensures the public schools aren’t illegally denying students access to positive, affirming information about LGBT issues. The ACLU-NJ has participated in this program and successfully advocated for a school in Vineland to remove a filter blocking sites that were supportive of LGBT issues.
Ms. Knox’s Facebook comments highlight the work that still needs to be done to help people understand why LGBT equality is so important. The ACLU will continue working hard to make sure public schools are safe for all students, including LGBT students, in New Jersey and in communities across the country.
NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey school district has removed filters that blocked lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender related websites after receiving student complaints and the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the district about its use of Internet filters. The inquiry is part of a national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign by the ACLU and Yale Law School to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.
The Vineland School District in Cumberland County had been using filtering software provided by Blue Coat, which has a specialized filter called “LGBT.” The district removed the filters from its high school computers on March 31, 2011 — just days after the ACLU of New Jersey submitted an open records request for documents about filtering software. The district subsequently agreed to remove the LGBT filter from middle school computers as well.
Other ACLU affiliates in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia sent letters today demanding they stop similar viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward LGBT communities.
“There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project. “This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites. These filters are designed to discriminate and are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or inappropriate.”
Justin Rodriguez and Shaun Laurencio, two students at Vineland High School had been complaining to their school for three years about various LGBT websites being blocked, and renewed their complaints at the same time the ACLU asked about the district’s filtering policies.
“What really hit this home for me was when I was writing a paper for class about Harvey Milk, but every site with information about his life was blocked for having ‘LGBT content,’” said Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Vineland High School. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S. and is a respected historical figure; his birthday is a state holiday in California.
Rodriguez added, “Seeing all these websites that are considered somehow unacceptable because of something I am was really offensive to me.”
Laurencio, an 18-year-old senior, said they had to badger the administration every time they discovered an obstacle.
“At first they’d unblock whatever specific site we’d asked about, but after a while they stopped unblocking the sites,” Laurencio said. “It was really discouraging.”
“Unblocking individual sites is not a viable solution,” said Block. “As long as the anti-LGBT filter is in place, students will be confronted with a demeaning and stigmatizing message that the site has been blocked on account of its LGBT-related content. It’s unfair to put students in the difficult position of asking special permission before being allowed to access LGBT viewpoints. Public schools have a duty to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”
The ACLU of New Jersey has also filed open records requests with 26 districts in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, requesting contracts with Internet filtering software providers, policies about the use of software and any communication with software vendors that mention filters related to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender-related content.
A video showing students how to test whether or not their schools are illegally filtering content, and providing instructions for reporting censorship is available.
Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out this form.
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools
TRENTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Project Vote and the Fair Elections Legal Network today submitted a brief seeking to ensure that the Department of Education fulfill a twenty-five-year old mandate to protect the voting rights of private, charter, and public school students, which the DOE has thus-far failed to meet.
“It is appalling that 25 years after the High School Voter Registration Law was issued, there are still no regulations on the books protecting the rights of private and charter school students under the law, and only the most minimal of protections for district public school students,” said Ed Barocas, the ACLU-NJ legal director.
In 1985, New Jersey passed a law giving all eligible high school seniors the right to receive a voter registration form and voter education as they neared adulthood. The law required the DOE to pass regulations to effectuate the law and ensure compliance. But the DOE never did. And even when the DOE earlier this year created a minimal and insufficient compliance requirement for public schools, it still wholly ignored the rights of students at private and charter schools.
In June of this year, the DOE turned down the voting rights groups’ formal request to tighten the oversight requirements. The groups therefore took state educators to court. This appeal of the DOE decision is based on a section of the voter law that says the commissioner of education “shall adopt” regulations on the voting law.
“The result is that students in 40 to 60 percent of school districts are not being educated about a fundamental aspect of our democracy, or are not receiving the tools they need to register and to vote,” stated Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network. “When Governor Tom Kean signed the law in 1985, it was out of a civic-minded purpose to fight low rates of voter registration and voting that tend to occur among youth. Today’s lawsuit asks the State to honor that promise to New Jersey’s students and enforce their rights under the voting laws.”
The case is especially important for the over 13,000 students who graduate from private and charter schools every year. The State doesn’t monitor those schools at all for compliance with the voter registration law.
The 84,000 students who graduate annually from New Jersey public schools will also benefit from this case, which asks the appeals court to bolster state oversight and monitoring over their voter registration practices for public schools. Currently, school administrators must check a box on a 144-page checklist, once every three years, to affirm compliance. That is the extent of oversight imposed by the State about the voting laws.
According to Census Department figures, youths age 18-24 vote at far lower rates than their older counterparts. The past two presidential elections years have shown gaps ranging from 12 to 23 percent between the rates of youth voter registration and turnout and the voter registration and turnout of the population as a whole.
Estelle Rogers of Project Vote noted that her group is engaged in a year-long project to register 100,000 high school students in five states. “Research shows that it is possible to create long-term change by encouraging life-long civic participation from young people,” said Rogers. “School-based voter registration drives are one of the best ways of accomplishing this change,” she added.
NEWARK — Countering a New Jersey church's unjustified pursuit of an anonymous e-mailer's identity, Public Citizen and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) asked a court this week to rescind a legal order filed by the church and to protect the e-mailer's privacy.
The two groups filed a brief in the Superior Court of New Jersey in Morris County this week, arguing that the church's request for the source of an e-mail blaming poor management at Our Lady of the Magnificat School for declining student enrollment violated the First Amendment.
"The Constitution allows everyone to express an opinion on matters that concern them without worrying about undue retaliation," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. "Our tradition of anonymous speech reaches back to the publication of the Federalist Papers. No one has the right to intimidate people into silence by threatening to unmask the anonymity they're entitled to."
After several parents of children at the Our Lady of the Magnificat School received an e-mail in February accusing the school of poor management and speculating about student enrollment, the church brought concerns to court in June over slander and potential damage to its reputation.
The court ordered Cablevision, the Internet service provider, to produce documents identifying the critic. Cablevision notified the critic, who contacted Public Citizen and the ACLU-NJ for assistance.
"Established law says that Internet critics cannot be unmasked unless several procedural and substantive protections are met," said Public Citizen attorney Paul Alan Levy. "The requirement that legal and factual merit must be shown before the identity of Internet speakers can be discovered has been the law in New Jersey for nearly a decade."
As ruled in a case that Levy argued a decade ago before New Jersey's Appellate Division, certain criteria must be met for a court to allow the search for an anonymous online commenter's identity to proceed. First, the online commenter must receive notification in order to secure a legal defense. Second, a legal showing must prove the material in question is in fact defamatory. Third, a factual showing must prove the case against the critic is strong. The church in this case has met none of those criteria, Levy said.
The groups are asking the court to vacate its order to Cablevision. They are working with local attorney Richard L. Ravin of Hartman & Winnicki, P.C.
Read the brief online at http://www.citizen.org/documents/In_re_OLM_Brief_Supp_Motion_Reconsideration.pdf
Newark, N.J. - For five decades, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has been a gale force in the most critical social debates of our time and a vigilant guardian of civil rights for all.
In June, the ACLU-NJ will mark the 50th anniversary of its founding and celebrate its standing as one of the largest and most active affiliates in the nation. Created to counter the growing pressures on civil liberties in the state, the affiliate's first official meeting took place on the night of June 16, 1960. Since its start, the affiliate, which has continued to keep its headquarters in Newark, has seen its membership multiply nearly 10-fold, from 1,600 people to more than 15,000.
"We believe that the liberties in the Bill of Rights belong to every American, to all the people in New Jersey regardless of their political beliefs, race, religion or national origin," ACLU-NJ founder and longtime President Emil Oxfeld said in the original press release announcing the formation of the state's affiliate. "We believe these freedoms must be exercised if democracy in our state is to grow and thrive."
Oxfeld went on to list issues that desperately needed attention at the time - due process, racial discrimination, the separation of church and state, and freedom from censorship - all principles the ACLU still defends daily.
"While some of the issues raised in our cases over the years seem archaic by today's standards, many haven't changed at all," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs, who has led the affiliate since 1999, including during the biggest membership spike in its history. "The law has advanced remarkably in areas like women's rights, lesbian and gay rights, and safeguarding personal privacy, but with issues like free speech, police practices and religious freedom, no fight ever stays won."
"The ACLU of New Jersey has been a leader in the crucial civil liberties battles of our time," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the national ACLU. "While each new era brings a wave of assaults on freedom, the ACLU of New Jersey responds swiftly and decisively, protecting the rights of all Garden State residents. It has proven its value on the American political landscape."
Since opening its doors and springing into action - its first official undertaking was commending the Clifton Library's stance against banning books like Lady Chatterley's Lover - the ACLU-NJ has doggedly worked for justice and equality in New Jersey.
In its first decade the ACLU-NJ took strong action following the 1967 Newark Rebellion. Staffers took to the streets in the aftermath, painstakingly cataloguing police abuses to the ACLU-NJ would refer to in its demands for reform. The New Jersey affiliate also emerged even more progressive than the national ACLU, becoming one of the first state affiliates to take a stand against the Vietnam War.
Since those early years, the ACLU-NJ has grown into one of the country's largest and most active state affiliates, with a record of milestones that has earned it a role on the national stage. Among its accomplishments, the ACLU-NJ:
The ACLU-NJ is celebrating the clients, attorneys, leaders and volunteers - many involved in the cases highlighted above - who have built its legacy, from its founders to its future. The stories of these 50 Faces of Liberty can be found at the ACLU-NJ website, http://www.aclu-nj.org
"Society has changed dramatically since our founding, but we've never lost the fire that fuels the ACLU's advocacy," Jacobs added. "We can't always predict what challenges lie ahead for liberty in a changing world, but whatever they are, the ACLU stands ready to defend the fundamental rights of ordinary Americans."
The year-long commemoration will culminate November 4 at the NJ Freedom Fest: A night of laughter and liberties, hosted by comedian Jimmy Tingle and featuring faces from the ACLU past and present, to be held at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick.
Newark - The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey sent an Open Public Records Act request Friday to the Rancocas Valley School District for documents that will shed light on the district's decision to remove the book Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology from the Rancocas Valley High School library. The book, which shares gay students' coming-out stories and reflections on identity, won the School Library Journal's Adult Books for High School Students Award in 2001.
"The ultimate decision of whether a book can be removed does not rest simply on whether a few individuals or students may be offended," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "Decisions to censor literature should only be based on a standard set of neutral criteria unrelated to the political or social themes in the book."
The school district made its decision after a political group specifically singled out books with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender themes. The ACLU-NJ filed its request in order to learn whether the school district's policies were applied fairly, without discrimination.
"Educators and school librarians are the best qualified to determine what kinds of books and materials schools should keep in their libraries," said Jacobs. "Neither political groups nor parents have a right to impose their decisions, morals, or values on all students and families."
In 1982, the United States Supreme Court held that school boards have only a limited right to remove books from school libraries. "Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books," the Court explained. Rather, removals should be based only on "educational suitability," with school boards taking the input of educators into account.
"If we started removing every book that one group or another objects to, our libraries' shelves would practically be bare," Jacobs noted. "The idea is to expose students to a diversity of themes and views, not to tightly restrict the information they receive."