ShapTalk: Guest Commentary
By Michael M. Shapiro
This past February, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that school systems are responsible for stopping bias-based harassment and found in favor of a former student who had been incessantly harassed because of his sexual preference while attending the Toms River Regional School District. A school district may now be held liable if it is notified of a “hostile educational environment” and does not take reasonable action to eradicate it.
While New Jersey has one of the toughest anti-discrimination laws in the Country, enforcement of the law is weak, particularly in public schools. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent decision should be viewed as a catalyst for change in its public schools. To avoid adverse court decisions and to create an educational environment free of bias-based harassment, schools should take an additional step: Every school district in the state should be required to provide mandatory sensitivity training to all students, faculty and staff.
Bias-based harassment comes in many forms. The Toms River case and a recent case in Jackson Township deal with harassment based on sexual preference. However, racial-based harassment is unfortunately as prevalent, if not more so, in New Jersey’s public schools. A case filed in New Providence in 2005 involving allegations of harassment based on race is winding its way through the courts and is currently in discovery. Anti-Semitism and persecution of other diverse individuals are also present in New Jersey’s public schools. Sexism has resulted in many female students transferring into private schools so they can obtain an education free of sexual harassment. As the Latino, Asian, and Indian populations increase in New Jersey, student-on-student harassment has become more rampant, as well.
The recent Supreme Court decision provides an alternative for school districts: Either deal with problems of harassment in your schools or face the consequences in litigation. A decision to defend a litigation rather than institute preventative measures in the schools can be financially disastrous for a school district and can result in the rupturing of the town’s very fabric. A better solution is rigorous sensitivity training in the public schools that encompasses students, faculty, and school employees and will help prevent incidences before they result in costly litigation.
Of course, sensitivity training is an expense that must be borne and will be opposed in many school districts because of its impact on the budget. Therefore, the best solution is for the state to mandate sensitivity training in the public schools and provide grant money for school districts to develop and implement programs. While sensitivity training is not cheap, its cost will pale in comparison to the money spent defending litigations and paying judgments.
Some school districts will also oppose the training claiming that they do not have harassment problems. But there is not a school district in the state that does not have students who suffer some form of bias-based harassment. It is only a question of time before those students seek legal recourse or, worse yet, engage in a Columbinesque fit of rage resulting in unnecessary and tragic death and lives destroyed.
Before a tragedy occurs and/or litigations develop as a result of bias-based harassment, and significant money judgments and attorneys’ fees are incurred, our state’s school districts should implement sensitivity training at all grade levels through a mandate that provides grant funding for such programs.
Michael M. Shapiro is an attorney who resides in New Providence. An archive of his columns can be found at ShapTalk.com.