Last week, a Camden County Superior Court judge refused to dismiss claims that asserted, among other things, a claim for damages for emotional distress allegedly resulting from “ongoing and repetitive” bullying.
In D.D. on behalf of S.R. and A.R. v. Camden City Board of Education, two elementary school students who were diagnosed with learning disabilities and other medical issues were allegedly repeatedly bullied by another student based on their disabilities. Subsequently, their parents asserted that district employees failed to respond appropriately to more than a dozen reported instances of bullying by a classmate.
In response to the litigation, the school district filed a motion to dismiss the seven-count claim. The court, by permitting portions of this claim to go forward, recognized that the parents may be able to demonstrate that the administration’s failure to respond to bullying harmed their children and that disregard for the children’s safety was shocking to the conscience of the court.
The parent filed claims against the Camden City school district and four school officials under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) and the New Jersey state constitution, in addition to other legal claims, asserting that the district and officials failed to protect students from bullying over the course of the 2016-2017 school year.
Important to the court’s analysis was the allegation that administrators assigned the aggressor student to the same homeroom as the victims while aware that the aggressor student had targeted and bullied those students. The court noted that because students are compelled to attend school, a school educator has a general duty to supervise students and take reasonable precautions to protect students’ safety and well-being, which includes, but may not be limited to, protecting them from “foreseeable dangers” created by others.
As a result, the court found that the parent’s allegations that the district failed to supervise and protect the students were sufficient to permit the claims that the school district was generally negligent as well as negligent in its supervision of the students to move forward.
According to the court, in order for the student to recover monies for emotional distress, among other factors, the school district’s conduct “must be so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” The court then noted the parent’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim asserted that the district’s failure to protect the students, under these specific circumstances, could meet that standard.
However, the court cautioned, “[i]t is a fact issue whether the repetitive and ongoing nature of the [bullying] conduct… is sufficient to satisfy this requirement.” As a result, the court found that the student had made an initial case to support a claim for emotional distress damages, and allowed the complaint to go forward.
School districts are encouraged to discuss this matter with their board attorney. For additional information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.