A ruling by New Jersey's top civil rights official is expected to hold school administrators to standards similar to those that employers must enforce in the workplace. In overruling an administrative law judge's decision, state civil rights director J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo said the Toms River Regional School District had allowed a "hostile school environment" to develop. The ruling awarded $50,000 to a boy who was slapped, punched, and repeatedly taunted with antigay slurs by his seventh-grade classmates. "While there is merit to the observation that the immaturity of children may increase the likelihood that school students will be exposed to hurtful behavior, it is also important to recognize that schools are responsible for teaching children what types of behavior are and are not acceptable," Vespa-Papaleo wrote.
A lawyer for the district said it "absolutely" will bring the case to the superior court's appellate division.
"We strongly believe the school district acted appropriately, effectively, and promptly for this young man," Thomas Monahan said. However, Vespa-Papaleo said that a school is liable for bullying by peers if its employees "knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take effective measures to stop it." Students also do not have the option of quitting as employees in a workplace do, he noted.
The district has been ordered to reprint its student handbooks so that they explicitly ban bullying on the basis of sexual orientation. Staffers--as well as middle- and high-school students--must be trained in those policies annually for at least the next six years. While Vespa-Papaleo used the standards that state courts have developed to eliminate workplace bias in issuing his decision, Monahan argued that school officials would not be able to enforce the same rules on the playground that employers can in an office setting. "You can't fire a student," he said. Earlier this summer Vespa-Papaleo ruled that taverns cannot offer discounts to women on "ladies' nights," agreeing with a man who claimed such gender-based promotions discriminate against men.