John Rue & Associates, LLC has filed a lawsuit against the Borough of Sayreville School Board of Education (the Board) and the Commissioner of Education, alleging that a bullying decision by the Board was a violation of the student’s First Amendment right to free speech.
The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, seeks financial damages on behalf of the girl and her parents, in part based on their allegation that they were required to place her in a private school to avoid bullying by her classmates, directly resulting from the Board’s botched “bullying investigation.. The Board suspended the girl over a social media post that it claimed was racially insensitive, despite the girl making it outside school grounds after school hours, and the lack of any other connection between the post and the school or her classmates.
The case arises out of a social media post by another eight grade girl, in which the student (not the plaintiff in this case) took a “selfie” in a bathroom mirror while she was wearing a mudpack, and added a caption that said “When he says he’s only into black girls.” The plaintiff’s daughter then re-posted this picture on Instagram. The plaintiff did not take the picture or make the caption. She added a comment that said, “Ha, ha, ha! Love her,” with laughing emoticons.
In its investigation, the school board placed the picture in front of students at Sayreville next to another picture, of a boy holding a unrelated sign reading “KKK-OK.” The administration asked students (who had previously not seen either picture) if they found these pictures offensive. Most said that they did. So the school ruled that the girl’s repost of the mudpack picture had been “bullying” conduct.
The lawsuit argues that the Board violated the girl’s First Amendment rights and overreached in its discipline of her. That discipline resulted in her classmates bullying and harassing her at school. The incident took place at Sayreville Middle School in 2017, when racial tension was high.
The plaintiff used her personal phone while she was home on her home network when she made the post. The student featured in the post was not a Sayreville student, therefore, the Board had no obligation to that person. In the administrative hearing, now the focus of the federal lawsuit, the school asserted that its obligation to investigate the incident was sufficient to meet the First Amendment requirement of “substantial disruption” to the school sufficient to permit it to censor speech, made off campus, outside of school hours and not directed at any campus activity.
Prior to the Finstagram post, racial tension was running high throughout the school district, and the district had demonstrated poor race relations in the past, the lawsuit said. The school district was racially diverse.
In the meantime, the plaintiff was a valued member of the school community, having been on the honor roll, a participant on the school council, and made the morning announcements every day at school. In her free time, she volunteered to assist students with disabilities at the middle school.
The lawsuit claims that the school district’s reaction to the plaintiff’s post was an overreaction to quell the already high racial tension in the district at the expense of a valuable student in the school, even though the post did not prove harmful to anyone. In short, they wanted to make an example of the plaintiff. And they did.
It took the Board five days to learn about the incident when someone alerted them to the situation. However, according to the lawsuit, the post went unnoticed, as there were no altercations among the students. The school did not cancel any classes, nor did it need to hold an assembly to discuss the incident at length.
The post did not seem to make any significant impact on the day-to-day goings on at the school, the lawsuit argues. Despite this lack of impact, the Principal elected to launch a Code of Conduct Investigation, and the Board’s harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) Specialist also launched an investigation.
Even though the allegedly offensive post occurred off school grounds, outside of school hours, involved no students at Sayreville Middle School, did not target anyone on the Board, and did not come to the attention of one of the Board’s administrators for five days, the Board’s HIB Specialist recommended they find her guilty of violating the HIB statute.
The Board accepted this recommendation and suspended the plaintiff for one day, removed her from the student council, prohibited her from making the morning announcements, barred her from attending a school assembly, and prevented her from attending a special trip for members of the student council.
The student body became emboldened by the Board’s decision, and the plaintiff then began to suffer from harassment from her fellow students, according to the lawsuit. The Board ignored her complaints about harassment because she was white and her aggressors were not, the lawsuit said.
The apathy about the bullying she suffered combined with the decision by the Board left the plaintiff to feel isolated and unsafe at school. The toxic atmosphere forced her to leave public school for private school at great cost to her parents.
The parents appealed the Board’s decision to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, who reaffirmed the Board’s ruling on Sept. 23, 2021. By that point, the parents had exhausted all their legal options and chose to file the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are seeking to have the Board’s decision vacated and expunged from their daughter’s record, as well as damages for the impact the incident had on her and her family.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim that the Board and Commissioner of Education violated several laws in their actions against the student. Primarily, they violated her rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit claims that the original post was meant as satire, it was not directed at anyone and had no malicious intent.
The plaintiff also accused the Board of violating the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). That law states that everyone is entitled to enjoy all advantages and opportunities of public accommodations, and a person cannot be discriminated against due to the color of their skin or their association with another person. The lawsuit argues that the Board discriminated against the plaintiff due to her skin color and her parents for their association with her.
Finally, the lawsuit claims that the Board failed to enforce the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, which protects students from obvious examples of bullying while on school grounds. The lawsuit claims that the Board failed to protect the plaintiff who was being bullied at school and created an unsafe environment.
If your child is facing harassment or bullying at school and the school district is failing in its responsibilities, our New Jersey education lawyers at John Rue & Associates, LLC can help. Call us at 862-283-3155 or contact us online today to schedule a free consultation. Located in Montclair and Princeton, New Jersey; we serve clients throughout the state.