The mother of a girl who attended Buzz Aldrin Middle School in Montclair has filed a claim with the school board alleging that her daughter, who is Black, was the victim of racist bullying for nearly two years.
The claim says the girl was taunted in person and in an online chat group based on “her race, skin color, hair texture, body type and singing ability” beginning in September of 2018, when she transferred from West Orange as a seventh grader, and continuing through March of 2020.
According to the claim, the girl was called a wide array of highly offensive racial slurs, and students would tug at her hair and scalp.
The school district failed to adequately investigate the incidents or implement procedures to protect the girl, and even retaliated against the mother and daughter, the claim states.
The Montclair Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Johathan Ponds, said he couldn’t comment on the “anticipated litigation,” but that the district investigates all incidents of bullying and implements age-appropriate consequences and safety protocols. “The safety and welfare of our students is of utmost importance,” he said.
Minority enrollment in the Montclair public schools is 51%, and the majority of those students are Black.
Natalie Hackett, the girl’s mother and principal of a high school in Passaic County, is seeking a private or out-of-district placement for her daughter, who will be entering high school in the fall; reimbursement of medical and psychiatric bills; punitive damages; damages for pain and suffering and “loss of enjoyment of life;” and attorney fees.
Her daughter, who has been out of the classroom since March due to the pandemic, is “hurting and withdrawn,” Hackett said. Despite extensive therapy, she “has daily chest pains and anxiety attacks.”
The girl also plays four instruments and sings, but because of the traumatic events, her work with an Asbury Park band has been on hold, according to her mother.
The school board has six months to settle the matter before the claim is filed in court, said Jeffrey Youngman, Hackett’s attorney.
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The complaint chronicles many events of alleged harassment, including racist and profane insults made in online chat groups and in person, and physical assault. Youngman, a Glen Rock lawyer who has defended several high-profile school bullying cases in the state, said he rarely includes so much detail but felt it was necessary because the behavior in this case was so “egregious.”
“I look at five to 10 of these complaints every week,” he said. “This shocked even my conscience.”
Hackett said in an interview with NorthJersey.com her daughter had been a happy, outgoing honors student in the West Orange public schools and never experienced any kind of bullying, or “any issues at all.” The two moved to Montclair, where Hackett was born and raised, to be closer to family.
At first, Hackett couldn’t understand why her daughter kept saying she wanted to go back to West Orange. It wasn’t until December of 2018, when her daughter got a new phone, that Hackett discovered the texts.
In-person harassment listed in the complaint includes an incident on the school playground in March of 2019 when a group of boys, all of whom were white, allegedly surrounded the girl, pushed her and trampled mud on her new white sneakers. In another, she was in Dunkin’ Donuts when a group of boys came in, played a video loudly of her singing, mocking her ability, while other students in the store laughed, according to the complaint.
The document also chronicles numerous interactions between Hackett and school officials, beginning when she brought to the school office a 70-page printout of harassing texts she had found on her daughter’s phone.
The school’s responses often smacked of victim-blaming or taking the side of the aggressors, Hackett said. For example, a guidance counselor allegedly asked the girl what she was doing to provoke the attacks; told her she was “too nice” and that “you should choose better friends.” She was told she should have “run away” and “found an adult” during the playground incident, during which there was no adult supervision. Another time a counselor explained that an aggressor didn’t realize he was hurting her. “He misreads social cues,” the counselor explained.
Other responses — such as assigning an adult guard for the girl during the school day — just made her daughter more of a target, Hackett said.
Hackett said that after months of waiting for the school to properly investigate her reports of bullying, she began sending administrators screen shots and other evidence. By the time she spoke at a Board of Education meeting on May 1 she had sent over 200 emails, she said. “I figured that maybe they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. And they still dropped the ball.”
In August of last year, Hackett filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Their investigation found that the school failed to address the harassment, intimidation and bullying and the retaliation reported by the family. The complaint is still pending.
When her daughter was assaulted on the playground, Hackett said she was told by former Superintendent Kendra Johnson that she’d observed the security videotape and it “looked like horseplay,” but she refused to let Hackett see the film.
Johnson left the district in July of 2019 after a year as superintendent.
Hackett said Johnson got angry when she posted the pictures of her daughter’s ruined sneakers on the internet and identified the school.
“I’m a parent and my kid is in pain,” she said she told Johnson.” I need you to recognize it and do something about it.”
Julia Martin covers Montclair for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @TheWriteJulia
Published at Tue, 28 Jul 2020 02:50:00 +0000