Victory for Gay and Other Students Who Face Harassment

February 20, 2007

NEWARK, N.J. -- In a major victory for student rights, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey praised a decision released today by the New Jersey Supreme Court that extends anti-discrimination protections to school children subjected to bias-based bullying and harassment.

"Bullying can be enormously destructive to students emotionally and psychologically," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "This decision requires schools to take necessary steps to ensure that students are protected from bias-based harassment, and makes clear that schools must address the entire school environment instead of merely viewing specific incidents of bullying as isolated events."

The ACLU-NJ and several other child advocacy organizations filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief in L.W. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education supporting the student L.W.'s claim under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and describing the negative impact that peer harassment and bullying have on students and the school environment. The New Jersey Supreme Court sided with L.W. and firmly stated that schools may be liable under the Law Against Discrimination for permitting student-on-student biased-based harassment.

"Students in the classroom are entitled to no less protection from unlawful discrimination and harassment than their adult counterparts in the workplace," wrote Chief Justice James R. Zazzali in a unanimous opinion. "[R]easonable measures are required to protect our youth, a duty that schools are more than capable of performing. . . . [W]e require school districts to implement effective preventive and remedial measures to curb severe or pervasive discriminatory mistreatment. Appropriate and reasonable measures will reinforce the basic principle that student-on-student sexual harassment is unacceptable."

As described in the decision, L.W., a student in the Toms River schools, was subjected to anti-gay peer harassment and bullying based on his perceived sexual orientation. As he progressed through school, the harassment increased in frequency and severity and, consequently, he transferred to another school district. In July 2004, the Director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights issued an order holding that the Law Against Discrimination protected L.W. from the harassment, using the same standard that applies to employment discrimination. The Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education appealed the decision to the Appellate Division, which decided in L.W.'s favor. It then appealed that decision to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

ACLU-NJ cooperating attorneys Emily Goldberg and Larry Lustberg of Gibbons P.C. filed the brief on behalf of the ACLU-NJ and the Association for Children of New Jersey, the Education Law Center, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Northern New Jersey, the National Conference for Community and Justice (NJ), New Jersey Family Voices, Roxbury Parents for Exceptional Children and Statewide Parents Advocacy Network of New Jersey.

The case is captioned L.W. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education, A-111-05.


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