Nearly a dozen students and their parents have been brought into a lawsuit filed by a New Jersey teenager who accused two school districts of not doing enough to stop eight years of bullying.
A judge last week allowed 11 teens and their parents to become third-party defendants, a novel ruling that could have broader consequences when bullying is litigated. The judge and lawyers say it’s the first time a New Jersey judge has been asked by a school district to add students as defendants in a bullying case.
“As difficult as it is for my client, we’re very pleased with the message that the decision sends,” said Brian Cige, a lawyer for the now-18-year-old plaintiff identified in court documents only by his initial, V.B. “There needs to be personal responsibility for both kids and their parents for their behavior.”
In a lawsuit filed last year, the teen and his mother contended that he was tormented from fourth grade until last year, when he graduated as a junior because he did not believe the Hunterdon Central Board of Education could protect him. The teen says he was tormented first for being overweight, then for being perceived as gay.
Over the years at Hunterdon Central and before that in elementary and middle schools in the Flemington-Raritan Regional district, he said bullies dumped pasta and sauce on his clothes, poked him with their fingers, threw balls at his mid-section and made fun of him on Facebook.
He said school officials never stopped the behavior even though he repeatedly asked for help. He has spent time in counseling and was hospitalized for anorexia, then forced to participate in difficult physical activities in gym class even though a doctor said he shouldn’t. Cige says his client has had a tough transition to a community college this school year. He blames that on his early high school graduation, which he said came abruptly at the suggestion of school officials.
Cige said neither the student nor his mother were available for interviews.
Jeffrey Schanaberger, a lawyer for the Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education, said it was his firm’s idea to add the alleged bullies as defendants in the case. He said that he’s been involved in other cases where plaintiffs sued their alleged bullies as well as school districts. What’s new here, he said, is that it was the schools themselves bringing the students into the case.
“It puts us in a favorable posture because the districts’ position was that they responded appropriately to all reported instances,” he said.
In legal filings, the schools said that they notified parents of children accused of bullying the plaintiff.
But Lewis Markowitz, a lawyer for a teen named in the lawsuit, said that wasn’t the case. He said his client denies bullying and that the boy’s parents were never told of the encounter described in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims that the boy was one of two who pulled down V.B.’s pants during a yearbook-signing session in 2008, when all three boys were in sixth grade.
He said the motivation for the schools to add the students to the case is largely financial. “They’re looking to palm off some of the liability, if any exists,” Markowitz said.
Cige said: “To the extent that someone did something minor and they’re caught up in this net, that’s unfortunate. To the extent that someone is a prime bad actor, they need to be held accountable.”
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