MONTCLAIR, NJ - The family of a 13-year-old female student, who attends Buzz Aldrin Middle School, has filed a Tort Claim against the school district, alleging harassment, bullying and discrimination, among other allegations. Jeffrey R. Youngman, who has represented several high-profile anti-bullying cases in New Jersey, is the family’s attorney.
The student’s mother, Natalie Hackett, has stated that she tried to handle the matter quietly for two years. She stated that she has sent school district officials more than two hundred emails with pleas for help in more than 53 incidents.
The student, who was born and raised in West Orange until moving to Montclair two years ago, was an honors student who has been actively involved in sports, drama and other activities including being featured as a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped Junior.
The claimant started her experience in the Montclair Public School District as a pre-teen in the 7th grade.
According to the complaint, within the first few weeks of school, she became a target for her identifying characteristics, skin tone, race, and hair texture, both in person and online. She has been called, “Blackie,” “Tar Baby,” “Burnt Stick,” “Shadow” and other slurs. According to screenshots provided by the Hackett family, students also told her, “You look like you jumped in a bucket of black paint,” to which, another student responded, "...sh*t." The online slurs were followed by laughing emojis or other hurtful commentary from bystanders, the family added.
"When I saw how much pain my daughter was in, I had to stop sending her on auditions and start focusing on her mental health," Hackett said. "She started showing signs of distress when she'd wake up crying from nightmares and have frequent anxiety attacks. She also started begging me not to send her to that school anymore."
"I just didn't understand why she didn't want to go to school, until I discovered the chat group taunting her for her skin tone. Then she revealed that it had been happening for nearly four months," Hackett added.
According to the family, bullying didn’t end in the school -- she was also targeted by students posing as friends who invited her out to humiliate her publicly. The targeting also continued after hours and on weekends in online chats, while she played video games with peers and also on her public social media pages, the family says. The insults and threats continued for two school years, the Claim asserts.
According to the Claim, in school and after school, students examined her scalp and hair to determine if she was wearing a wig or weave because of her hair texture. Students also called her “wig girl” or “weave girl” online and in-person. They took pictures of her in class, altered the images and posted them in chat groups. Students also posted her singing videos into chat groups to further humiliate her.
After being criticized privately, a student took a screenshot of the message and then posted it in a group to ridicule her in front of her peers. She told a student who told her that she was singing like a dying cow, "I deleted your comment." The student responded, "God deleted your singing voice." He then posted the exchange in the chat group. With an audience of nearly a dozen students, some responded with laughing emojis.
According to her family, after reporting the group to the administration, it was removed after being in effect from October 2018 to January 2019. For the next few months, she unsuspectingly was invited to new groups that subsequently emerged.
In person, students invited the victim to hang with them, but then she would be publicly humiliated, while bystanders laughed, the claim asserts.
According to the claim, in a February 2019 incident, a group of several students in the auditorium taunted her. Before long, other students joined in, according to the Claim.
When the incidents were brought to the attention of school administrators, the claim asserts that they did not adequately address the issues, often times blaming the student and her family rather than addressing the perpetrators.
Hackett, says, "The way the District handled the investigations — not informing us of key findings or reports, not following the HIB law (Harassment, Intimidating and Bullying Law), spreading rumors throughout the community, retaliating against us both, and in some instances, failing to perform an investigation, at all, — attributed to my daughter’s subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, anxiety, depression and other health challenges including chronic chest pains."
"She had to be retrieved from class in a wheelchair on numerous instances and various different classes because of the severity of her chest pains." Hackett added, "One time, the nurse called to tell me that her heart rate was low." Hackett expressed that the nurse has been using an electronic instrument to monitor the Claimant's heart rate.
Then in March of 2019, the Claimant was surrounded and repeatedly assaulted by a group of 5 or more boys on the playground, according to the Claim. School officials were previously informed, nearly a month earlier, that the group had been targeting the victim. The Claim asserts that the school did not take action.
Despite the Claimant repeatedly telling the boys to stop hitting and stepping on her, they continued and even recorded the assault. According to the family, despite requests, no parent meeting took place and school officials explained that she was being given consequences for "not running from" the group of boys that surrounded and attacked her.
Hackett added, “My daughter became depressed, sad, and despondent. She was excluded from social activities, one would have expected to be part of at her age. She was made to feel ostracized for telling the adults, for the darkness of her skin, the texture of her hair, for creating comedic videos and participating in theatrical programs. Performing and being outgoing were activities that she was not only good at, -- but loved to do.”
“The way she was treated, made her feel embarrassed to be herself,” she said. “It broke my heart.”
According to the Claim, the district failed to mete appropriate discipline to the aggressors, refused to perform several investigations and retaliated against the victim and her family.
In August of 2019, Hackett filed a complaint with the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The District was placed on a Corrective Action Plan, a result of the findings, according to published reports. The matter is still pending until the District fulfills the obligation.
For the next year, even until July 2020, the Hackett family maintains that retaliation from both staff and students continued.
The district has not yet made a decision or told Hackett where her daughter is going to go to school for September or if she will still be again assigned someone to guard her.
"My daughter has suffered enough, at this point, I fear for her safety." Hackett concluded.
Editor's Note: The owner/publisher of TAPinto Montclair is involved in the Tort Claim discussed in this article. She has had no involvement in the writing this article.