A New Jersey appeals court has ruled that a former high school student can sue the district and its officials for allegedly failing to insulate her from a schoolmate whose father stalked and sexually abused her before her freshman year.
A two-judge Appellate Division panel on Oct. 24, in an unpublished opinion, said a trial judge erred in dismissing on summary judgment the complaints filed by the former student—identified only by the fictitious name of “Carolyn”—and her parents against the Pine Hill Board of Education and two of its officials, Doug Endee and Patricia Israel.
Appellate Division Judges Clarkson Fisher Jr. and Douglas Fasciale said a jury should decide whether those defendants should be held liable for any emotional harm, including post-traumatic stress disorder, Carolyn may have sustained during her years in high school, even though the sexual abuse and stalking occurred before her freshman year.
“Carolyn’s allegations that her [harm] was caused or further aggravated by the school-related events suffices to defeat summary judgment,” the court said.
The events leading to the lawsuit began in January 2009, when “Donald,” the father of Carolyn’s friend “Arlene,” sexually abused Carolyn when she was 13, according to the court. Donald was arrested, and eventually pleaded guilty, but stalked her by repeatedly driving by her house, the ruling said.
In the fall of 2009, as Carolyn and Arlene were entering high school, district officials held a meeting with Carolyn’s mother to discuss the situation and to inform her that Donald may, occasionally, be on school grounds, according to the court. The district is located in Camden County.
Despite concerns raised by Carolyn’s mother, Carolyn and Arlene were placed in the same homeroom and assigned lockers close to each other, the suit claims. The relationship between the two girls was bad, leading to fights and harassment of Carolyn by Arlene, it claims.
During her time in high school and afterward, Carolyn said she suffered from suicidal thoughts, anxiety, PTSD, apathy, depression and an inability concentrate, among other conditions. Carolyn filed her lawsuit after she turned 18.
In its motion for summary judgment, the district said it should not be held liable for damages caused by Donald before Carolyn entered high school.
The appeals court disagreed.
“In short, rather than attempt to insulate Carolyn from the sequelae of her abuser’s conduct, the allegations—if true—suggested the school district went out of its way to permit an already troublesome situation to fester and devolve,” the appeals court said.
“[W]hen the problem repeatedly manifested, it has been alleged that the school-district officials continued to fail her,” the judges said.
One of Carolyn’s attorneys, Samuel Reich, issued a brief statement. “We are very pleased with the decision. Bullying is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. Our client is happy that she will get her day in court,” said Reich, of Philadelphia’s Laffey, Bucci & Kent.
The district’s attorney, Cherylee Melcher of Hill Wallack in Princeton, was not available for comment.