A public school district’s obligations under a state anti-bullying law do not end when the targeted child is not enrolled in the district, a Nassau County judge has ruled.
After parents of a private school student sued the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District for the alleged cyberbullying that district students carried out against their daughter, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Feinman (See Profile) on Wednesday in a pre-discovery dismissal motion upheld the liability claim against the district under the 2010 Dignity for All Students Act.
Scrutinizing the law in a matter of first impression, Feinman wrote in J.G.S. v. Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District that the law “does not limit the regulation of students’ harassment and bullying only when it occurs on school property” or only when the victim is a registered student in the public school district.
“The clear purpose of the article is to prevent the type of conduct complained of by the plaintiffs herein,” the judge wrote.
Feinman, however, discarded all other claims against the school district. For instance, he rejected a common law negligence claim because the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that the district owed them a special duty. He also dismissed claims against the superintendent and a middle school principal, Meador Pratt, after their dismissal bids went unopposed.
The underlying case involves alleged cyberbullying of a girl through a video depicting a lewd act.
The girl had transferred from one public elementary school to another during the 2010-2011 school year after a student threatened her life. She then enrolled in private school.
The alleged cyberbullying occurred in the 2012-2013 school year, when the girl was in eighth grade. According to the complaint, two public school students allegedly conspired to circulate the video and falsely asserted to peers that girl in the video was the newly-transferred student.
The complaint alleges that after the girl’s parents learned of the video in late April 2013 and contacted the district, it failed to act appropriately under laws including the Dignity for All Students Act, codified in Education Law §10-18.
The parents charge that the district tried to divest its duties by sharing investigation results only with the Nassau County Police Department and failing to stop further incidents.
They claim that two months after they contacted the district, a third student posted a comment on the video saying the depicted female was the girl.
According to testimony from the father, his daughter was unable to focus on school and had to put off tests after learning others were claiming she was in the video.
Neither the parents or their daughter saw the video which was eventually taken down. The mother said she learned the girl in the video was unidentifiable.
Separately, the plaintiffs are suing the parents of the two students who circulated the video. That case is also pending in Nassau County Supreme Court.
The district claims it conducted an investigation after hearing from the father. In an affidavit, the principal said the school then disciplined the students “who had circulated an inappropriate video in our school,” adding that a school assembly was convened on cyberbullying and the investigation results were shared with police.
The Dignity for All Students Act was signed into law in September 2010, became effective in 2012 and was amended in 2013.
In Education Law §10, the law’s legislative intent is “to afford all students in public schools an environment free of discrimination and harassment. The purpose of this article is to foster civility in public schools and to prevent and prohibit conduct, which is inconsistent with a school’s educational mission.”
The district argued that because the girl was not a registered student at the time of her complaints, nor under its custody or control, nor present on school property or attending school functions, it had no duty to supervise district students for the girl’s benefit.
The plaintiffs said the district was reading the law narrowly and selectively for the interpretation that it only had to prevent harassment among its own students.
Feinman said the school’s view of its obligations was “not in line” with his reading of the statute. He said the law’s “express language” promotes civility in public schools and to prevent behavior that was inconsistent with a school’s educational mission.
Moreover, Feinman observed that Education Law §12 said “no student” shall be subjected to harassment while §11 said bullying can happen off school premises.
Feinman said the district’s reading would lead to “an absurd result as the district would, in effect, turn a blind eye to any such incidents occurring on or off school property, regardless of any potential serial harmful acts allegedly conducted or perpetrated by its students, should the targeted student be of a certain class, sub judice, a private school student.”
Jacques Simon of Manhattan represented the plaintiffs.
“It’s the dignity for all students act, not the dignity for public student’s act. That’s what this decision hammered home,” he later added.
Christine Gasser of Congdon, Flaherty, O’Callaghan, Reid, Donlon, Travis and Fishlinger in Uniondale represented the school district.
Jay Worona, general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, who is not involved in the instant case, said he did not know of districts that were not taking the Dignity for All Students Act requirements seriously and could not recall any litigation challenging a district’s obligations under the statute.