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Commissioner of Education Finds Student Not Victim of HIB

By on January 9, 2017 in Students with 0 Comments

Most harassment, intimidation, and bullying (“HIB”) investigations arise from allegations by a student against another student. However, New Jersey school districts must also investigate HIB allegations by a student against a staff member. On December 21, 2016, in M.R. o/b/o M.R. v. Board of Education of the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education upheld an Administrative Law Judge’s determination that a cheerleading coach’s conduct did not constitute HIB and did not violate the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act because the conduct was not based on any actual or perceived distinguishing characteristic.

Student M.R. was a cheerleader. The student’s parent alleged that the cheerleading coach bullied M.R. and three other cheerleaders. Specifically, the parent alleged that M.R. text messaged the coach stating that she could not attend that night’s basketball game due to other plans. The parent alleged that the coach responded to the student in a “strong bullying tone” and informed the student and the other students who missed the game that they are kicked off the cheerleading team. Subsequently, the students were reinstated to the team. However, M.R. alleged that the coach singled her out with the other students who had missed the game by telling them that their conversations should be kept private and not to report them to their parents. M.R. alleged that the coach targeted her and the cheerleading team was a hostile environment.

After an HIB investigation, the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School Board of Education upheld the Superintendent’s determination that the cheerleading coach’s conduct did not constitute HIB against M.R. The parent appealed this decision, which was ultimately upheld by an Administrative Law Judge and the Commissioner of Education.

Importantly, the Commissioner found that the conduct in question was not HIB because the parent failed to show that the coach was motivated by any actual or perceived distinguishing characteristic of the student – a critical element to establishing HIB. A distinguishing characteristic includes race, sex, gender identity, etc. Rather, the parent and student were unhappy with the manner in which the coach interacted with the student. However, that dissatisfaction by itself does not constitute HIB in violation of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act.

The Commissioner found that the Board’s decision was not arbitrary and capricious because the conduct in question did not meet the statutory definition of HIB set forth in N.J.S.A. 18A:37-14. The Board’s determination ultimately prevailed, and the parent’s case was dismissed.


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About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


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