The State of New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) on Thursday announced issuing a Finding of Probable Cause (FPC) against the Monmouth County Vocational School District over its alleged failure to sufficiently address anti-Semitic harassment of a Jewish student who eventually transferred out of the district.
According to the NJ Department of Law and Public Safety, in a June 2018 complaint filed with DCR, a parent alleged that her daughter, a minor, was subjected to unlawful discrimination based on religion at the district-run Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) high school in Sandy Hook.
The parent alleged that fellow students engaged in anti-Semitic harassment aimed at her daughter on a regular basis over the course of her three years at the school, including an April 2018 incident during which two male students wrote “I H8 JEWS” in large letters in the sand at a school-sponsored event, and then circulated a photo of one of them laying on the ground next to the message.
The complainant said the daughter was extremely upset by the image when she received it as an SMS, as well as by students’ comments that followed, including one suggesting the picture be used as the cover for the school’s yearbook.
The same parent reported that during her daughter’s sophomore year, fellow students drew swastikas on cafeteria lunch tables and on their notebooks; students publicly read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” during “read” periods in class (the book was not part of the assigned curriculum – pheew… DI); and a rock with the word “Adolf” written on it was placed on top of a water cooler directly behind the girl’s assigned seat in English class.
After the girl’s father notified school officials of the photograph and group messages, the girl was harassed and mocked as a “snitch” by her fellow students, and was shunned during the school day and outside of school.
According to DCR’s investigation, MAST did investigate the beach photo incident and imposed four-day suspensions on the two students responsible. The school also imposed a two-day suspension on the student who commented that the photo should be used as the yearbook cover.
However, according to the FPC, aside from imposing discipline in connection with the beach photo incident, “it does not appear the school took any broader actions to discern the extent of anti-Semitic behavior at the school, or to address the reported concerns.”
“Our schools are there to provide a safe and nurturing environment in which our young people can learn and grow,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Hate and harassment have no place in our schools, and it’s ultimately the responsibility of school officials to ensure that their schools offer a learning environment that is not hostile to individuals with any particular religious background or other protected characteristics.”
Division on Civil Rights Director Rachel Wainer Apter argued that “students have the right to attend school without being subjected to racial, religious, or other bias-based harassment. When a school is aware of a culture of prejudice and intolerance among students, it must address that culture head on, and not treat reported instances of harassment as isolated occurrences to be considered in a vacuum. The school must instead take steps to ensure that its students are not subjected to a hostile environment based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity or expression, or other protected characteristics.”
The beach incident “may have been part of a broader pattern of anti-Semitic conduct at MAST that called for broader institutional actions on the part of the school,” the FPC notes, and by not undertaking such actions, the school may “have not acted reasonably” under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).