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."
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."
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."