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Division on Civil Rights Finds Probable Cause that Monmouth County Vocational School District Failed to Sufficiently Address Anti-Semitic Harassment

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Division on Civil Rights (DCR) announced today that the Division has issued a Finding of Probable Cause (FPC) against the Monmouth County Vocational School District over its alleged failure to sufficiently address anti-Semitic harassment of a Jewish student who eventually transferred out of the district.

In a June 2018 complaint filed with DCR, a parent alleged that her daughter, a minor at the time, was subjected to unlawful discrimination based on religion at the district-run Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) high school. Located at Sandy Hook, MAST maintains a curriculum focused on marine sciences and marine technology/engineering.

In her complaint, the parent alleged that her daughter’s fellow students engaged in anti-Semitic harassment aimed at her daughter on a regular basis over the course of her three years at the school, including an April 2018 incident during which two male students wrote “I H8 JEWS” in large letters in the sand at a school-sponsored event, and then circulated a photo of one of them laying on the ground next to the message. The complainant said her daughter was extremely upset by the image when she received it over text, as well as by student comments that followed, including one suggesting the picture be used as the cover for the yearbook.

After the girl’s father notified school officials of the photograph and group messages, the complaint alleges, the girl was harassed and derided as a “snitch” by her fellow students, was shunned during the school day and outside of school.

According to DCR’s investigation, MAST did investigate the beach photo incident and subsequently imposed four-day, out-of-school suspensions on the two students responsible. The school also imposed a two-day suspension on the student who commented that the photo should be used as the yearbook cover.

However, the FPC states, aside from imposing discipline in connection with the beach photo incident, “it does not appear the school took any broader actions to discern the extent of anti-Semitic behavior at the school, or to address the reported concerns.”

“Our schools are there to provide a safe and nurturing environment in which our young people can learn and grow,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Hate and harassment have no place in our schools, and it’s ultimately the responsibility of school officials to ensure that their schools offer a learning environment that is not hostile to individuals with any particular religious background or other protected characteristics.”

“Students have the right to attend school without being subjected to racial, religious, or other bias-based harassment. When a school is aware of a culture of prejudice and intolerance among students, it must address that culture head on, and not treat reported instances of harassment as isolated occurrences to be considered in a vacuum,” said Division on Civil Rights Director Rachel Wainer Apter. “The school must instead take steps to ensure that its students are not subjected to a hostile environment based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender identity or expression, or other protected characteristics.”

The beach incident “may have been part of a broader pattern of anti-Semitic conduct at MAST that called for broader institutional actions on the part of the school,” the FPC notes, and by not undertaking such actions, the school may “have not acted reasonably” under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

The complaint filed by the girl’s mother alleges that her daughter enrolled at MAST as a freshman and was subjected to a climate of anti-Semitism for three years before transferring out of the school for her senior year.

Among other allegations, the mother’s complaint alleges that: (1) during her daughter’s sophomore year, her fellow students drew swastikas on cafeteria lunch tables and on their notebooks; (2) students publically read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” during “read” periods in class, even though the book was not an assigned part of the curriculum; and (3) a rock with the word “Adolf” written on it was placed on top of a water cooler directly behind the girl’s assigned seat in English class.

In an interview with DCR, the teacher explained that once she was made aware that the rock said “Adolf,” she disposed of it on a pile of rocks behind her classroom, but did not report the incident.

A Finding of Probable Cause does not resolve a civil rights complaint. Rather, it means the State has concluded its preliminary investigation and determined there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable suspicion New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD) has been violated.

Addressing bias activity in general, and particularly among New Jersey’s youth, is a top priority of the Murphy Administration. Earlier this year, the State established a new Interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias to tackle the problem of bias incidents involving young people in New Jersey’s schools and communities.

Chaired by DCR Director Wainer Apter, the Task Force is hosting a series of four listening sessions in November in which members of the public will have an opportunity to be heard on the issue of bias activity. The first listening session is scheduled for November 13 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Chabad House in New Brunswick.

The Task Force is seeking public input in order to develop a better understanding of how to combat bias and prevent acts of hate, intolerance and prejudice among New Jersey’s children, students, and young adults.

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