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Student Sues West Deptford School District, Alleging Harrassment

The girl, identified only by her initials in court documents, claims she was bullied, harassed, and physically assaulted in middle school and into high school.

Alleging that she was called a "bitch," a "whore," a "slut," and other, gender-derived slurs by classmates who eventually physically assaulted her and posted it to Facebook, a West Deptford resident is suing her former school district for failing to halt these alleged abuses or properly punish her attackers.

The student, a minor known in court documents only by her initials, "J. F.," is suing the district for compensation as a result of the incidents, which led to her leaving the school district. 

Her attorney, Kevin Costello of the law firm Costello & Mains, of Mt. Laurel, alleges that the incidents violate New Jersey discrimination laws by creating "a sexually harassing environment."

Gender-based harassment

Costello pointed out that although the term "sexual harassment" is used in the suit, the student was not molested or sexually assaulted or propositioned, as the common understanding of the terms could indicate.

"When we use the word 'sex' in the law, we’re really talking about gender," Costello said, "where but for the gender the harassment wouldn’t have taken place."

Costello said that his client "was called by sexually abusive terms," and that "it was suggested that she was pregnant when of course she wasn’t."

The practice allegedly began in middle school, he said, and carried into high school. 

Costello claims that the alleged incidents extended beyond what would be considered run-of-the-mill abuse, and that they should have been covered by the district harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) policy, making them a legal form of discrimination.

"Although bullying can be destructive, we tend to use it to describe a bigger set of conduct," Costello said. "It has not really been reduced to a certainty under our law."

HIB policies

Costello said that when J. F.'s parents told the school about the issues "they entirely dropped the ball. 

"We’d like to see that when a student comes to professionals in the school setting and says, 'look, this is happening to me,' that each one of those professionals has been reliably, consistently, and annually trained, in specific policies that have been documented, and that the student and the parent has been informed that there’s going to be follow-up," he said.

According to the district website, the West Deptford HIB policy was adopted in April 2003; the revised reporting mechanisms required by the state of New Jersey took effect in 2011

J. F.'s suit alleges that some of the incidents in question took place before this time, and some after it.

In 2012, West Deptford was placed on a warning list by the state Board of Education based on the number of HIB cases during the 2011-12 school year, which Superintendent Kevin Kitchenman attributed to the new reporting requirements.

“Our interpretation of the new law was very literal and very by the book,” Kitchenman told Patch in 2012. “And in doing that, it caused us to categorize more situations as harassment, intimidation and bullying then we probably should have.” 

Kitchenman declined to comment on the current case, referring requests to the district legal counsel.

As far as his client goes, Costello said that J. F. is continuing her education through "a combination of homeschool and higher education" at Gloucester County College. He said he expects the case to take as many as two years or more to resolve, if it progresses to a jury trial.

"I think she’s moving on to the best of her ability," Costello said. "I think that the family showed extraordinary flexibility in being able to homeschool her and protect her. 

"I think she’s a healthy, strong young lady," he said. "Hopefully this will leave no scars, it will just be a very stern life lesson."

Kristi Simpkins December 05, 2013 at 10:32 AM
Good for her. Her parents are doing what is supposed to have been done already. Especially by the district. That is to make sure that this child & any other child are always protected when they attend school. I just don't understand how this problem/issue has not been dealt with &/or rectified in a more timely fashion. This appears to have been going on for far too long. I commend this young lady & her family for their bravery & standing up & trying to rectify this terrible issue. It's really awful that this situation has to be even occurring.
zeke carey December 05, 2013 at 06:49 PM
before giving alcolades to the parents do you know specifically that this actually happened. your only hearing one side. Matt is this factual or all one sided.and when did this incident occur. bullying should not be tolerated no matter what but if the school was neglectful they have to pay the dues. The school has insurance to cover any litigation that will take place.
Kristi Simpkins December 06, 2013 at 07:17 AM
I do not understand why anyone would make allegations against people especially ones like these if they were not completely true. This child & her parents are merely trying to hold people accountable & responsible for not properly handling things with this young lady. I find it just awful that this young lady & her parents have to go to these extremes to have this situation finally rectified appropriately. Hopefully they can have this situation rectified. Sadly however the damage has already been done & this child will most likely never return to HS. IMO that is the saddest part about this whole thing.
topdown December 06, 2013 at 04:52 PM
KS, whether this lawsuit has merit remains to be seen and may have to be decided in court. What astounds me is the leap you make--frequently--that a CHARGE is in fact what truly happened. Geesh. There is a little thing called due process in this country. That said, no harassment or bullying of children especially is acceptable. My heart goes out to any who experience it. The schools must make dealing with it a priority.
Kristi Simpkins December 07, 2013 at 03:06 AM
Topdown, I am not making any leap regarding this case. I only said that what this child & her parents are doing is the correct thing. Especially if they believe this child was wronged in any way. Do you honestly believe that this child is lying & is now being homeschooled because that decision was her choice? If this is true & this child has been bullied, harassed, assaulted, etc., then this child & her parents must do what they have to in order to make people be held accountable & responsible for that wrong doing. Again as already stated I do not know why anyone would want to put more stress onto themselves & fight what will most likely be a very long battle if this were not completely true. She is fighting this I give this young lady a ton of credit for fighting this fight. If this is not true & she is lying then that will be proven in due course. However what if in court she is found to not be lying? What if she is telling the truth & has been telling the truth throughout this whole time?
stephanie December 09, 2013 at 08:04 AM
It's about time someone holds the scho district at fault! If she wins her case l the teachers and administration of the school Who knew a pit her being bullied should be fired!! Someone should have done something to help this child! No one should have to be homeschooled because a bum j of pink ass kids have no manors and nothing else Better to do them harass a girl! Personally they should also hold The kids parents who bullied this girl accountable also! Teach your kids some manors of that was your kid being teased and the girl was the bully you would be doing the same thing this girl is!! I'm glad she stepped up and said something and i hope that she wons!!!
stephanie December 09, 2013 at 08:06 AM
Sorry out of typos and no way to edit them
Sean Andrew December 17, 2013 at 06:23 AM
It's disturbing how out of touch people are. The family is suing the district .... the TAXPAYERS. No one will lose his job. Your neighbors and my neighbors will pay. And, KS, kids and parents may not lie but they often tell the story through a personal lens. You've heard one side. Now we await "the rest of the story..."
Kristi Simpkins December 17, 2013 at 08:42 AM
I understand what you're saying Sean. And it's unfortunate. However it's also unfortunate that this child has had to endure everything that she has for many years now. If her allegations are true then as parents, they are doing the correct thing in suing the district. What would you do if this were your daughter? As a parent myself I'd be doing the same thing as her parents are doing. Sadly it seems like this child & her family were given no other choice but to sue. As for the other side of this I'm surprised we have not heard anything from them. Then again we most likely will never hear from them. As stated before I give this child & her family & will always give people like them a lot of credit for standing up to this issue. When it comes to this issue it should never be taken lightly.
Sean Andrew December 17, 2013 at 11:34 AM
Of the numerous words typed above, the most important one was "IF"...."If her allegations are true..." Do you really think the schools are filled with teachers and administrators who turn their backs to cases of bullying or people who wake up in the morning with the single purpose of doing harm to kids? I went to school and have kids in school. While there may always be a bad apple or two among the adults, aren't the majority of teachers and administrators good people who may very well be our neighbors? And, aren't there often a bad apple or two among the parents? The school will never be able to get its side out. Why? Five simple letters - FERPA. They aren't allowed to share any information about this child. It simply is not allowed. If this is a case of a well intentioned young person whose concerns have been ignored then relief should be sought. Should the family be paid? I'm not sure what that solves since those who committed the act or ignored it will not pay. You and I will pay and I can truthfully say I didn't do anything wrong.

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