Aug. 4 (UPI) -- A lawsuit is moving forward against a New Jersey high school over a Sikh student's claims that he was bullied and subjected to slurs over his faith and South Asian heritage as teachers and administrators ignored the harassment.
Gloucester County Superior Court Judge Timothy Chell last month denied a request to dismiss the suit.
The Gloucester County Institute of Technology characterized the behavior as harmless "nicknames," the suit says. The 17-year-old student, who suffers blackouts from the extreme stress from bullying, is now being home-schooled, according to the suit.
"One way or another, we expect restorative justice for this student, as well as meaningful change to help other racial and religious minorities who may still be suffering from the same kind of malice from their peers and neglect from those who should protect them," Giselle Klapper, a senior staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition, said in a statement.
The coalition, a New York City nonprofit, is representing the student, along with New Jersey attorney Brian Cige.
The suit accuses the Gloucester County Special Services School District Board of Education of violating the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination by failing to take remedial action after being told of the abusive acts targeting the student on the basis of his religion and national origin and by retaliating against him after he reported the bullying.
The lawsuit calls for acknowledgement of the school district's wrongdoing; training on processes to better recognize bias-motivated harassment; and an unspecified amount of monetary damages. A priority is to provide the student with a safe space to return to the classroom for in-person learning after the reopening of schools, which are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
School district administrators did not respond to a request for comment.
In a brief supporting the motion to dismiss the case, lawyers for the Sewell, N.J.-based board deny the allegations, saying officials acted quickly to fully investigate the Harassment, Intimidation or Bullying complaint by the student, who is identified only by the initials A.M. in the suit.
"There was not only not a HIB violation at school, but also no discrimination pursuant to the NJLAD and prevailing case law," the brief says.
High bullying rate
Sikhism is the world's fifth-largest religion, with more than 25 million practitioners around the world, including an estimated 500,000 living in the United States.
Sikh Americans often are subject to harassment, which can focus on their visible articles of faith, including unshorn hair, head coverings, steel bracelets and other items, the coalition says. FBI hate crime statistics show that Sikhs are the third most targeted religious group in America, after Jews and Muslims, according to the suit.
In addition, the coalition says, Sikh American students are bullied at a rate that is twice the national rate and that it has received 14 complaints related to school bullying in the past year.
The lawsuit, filed in May by A.M.'s mother on his behalf, alleges the teen was subjected to a pattern of "bias-based bullying" beginning in early 2018 when another student called him a "terrorist." Later in the year, the same student started mocking A.M. -- described in the suit as having brown skin -- by calling him "sand cricket" and using the N-word, the suit says.
Other students began joining in and also spoke negatively about A.M.'s religious wear, including the kara, a Sikh article of faith that he wears around his wrist, the suit alleges
A.M. and his mother met with school officials several times in December 2018 and January 2019 to report the harassment but the situation did not improve, the suit says. A.M. was told that "sand cricket" was just a nickname and to stop turning in students because it was making too much work for school officials.
A.M. was diagnosed by a pediatrician with post-traumatic stress disorder, extreme anxiety and depression and began home-schooling in February 2019, the suit says. About the same time, A.M.'s mother received a letter saying an HIB investigation had been completed and the district "did not find evidence your child was the target of the investigated act of harassment, intimidation or bullying."
When he began home-schooling, A.M. received five hours a week of instruction from a teacher who came to his home. Since the pandemic closed GCIT, he has received no more than an hour and a half of instruction a week, while other students studying from home have full schedules, the suit says.
The defense brief says a student does not have a claim against a school district under NJLAD if the same allegedly discriminatory conduct would have occurred regardless of a characteristic such as race, creed, color and national origin or based on "isolated schoolyard insults or classroom taunts."
In A.M.'s case, four students accused of bullying him gave statements in January 2019 describing themselves as his friend and saying they called him "sand cricket" as a nickname or in a joking manner, the brief says. Two of them said A.M. had called them names and one said that "if at any point he told me to stop I would have."
Several other students said they had never used that phrase with A.M. and at least four teachers said they had not heard the derogatory terms directed at A.M., according to the brief. The brief also says A.M. did not make an allegation of being called the N-world in his first written statement.
"Further, it should be noted that A.M. has never made any allegations that any student has discriminated against him due to his religious wear or called him a 'terrorist,'"" the brief says.
Cige said that in many cases, the question isn't whether something happened but whether the incidents rose to the level of harassment. In A.M.'s situation, his treatment was both an HIB and NJLAD violation, he said.
Klapper told UPI that schools often don't take bullying seriously.
"If they did, these incidents wouldn't be happening in the first place," she said. "It's not the policy that's problematic. The policy can only be as effective as the person enforcing it."