HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Emerson, N.J., school officials failed to stop the constant bullying of a student who was physically assaulted, ridiculed on MySpace and threatened by classmates for six years, the state Attorney General said Tuesday.
The New Jersey Division on Civil Rights has found that there is probable cause that the Emerson Board of Education violated the state's anti-discrimination law for not dealing with the harassment, which focused on the student's sexual orientation.
The announcement by Attorney General Paula T. Dow on Tuesday came a day after New Jersey lawmakers passed what advocates said is the nation's toughest anti-bullying bill.
The male student, identified as J.C. Jr. in state documents, was allegedly assaulted four times, once by a group of his classmates after a school function. One boy promised to slit the teen's throat if he reported him. J.C. was depicted on MySpace as a girl and embarrassing drawings of him circulated at school. In middle school, he was harassed to the point that he had to be taken to an emergency room because he had trouble breathing, the state said.
The harassment, which occurred from 2002 to 2007 while J.C. was attending junior and senior high school, continued even though it was reported to school officials by the boy's parents at least 17 times, state officials said.
"Our investigation suggests that this young man was the target of consistent harassment for a period of years and that despite the existence of a written 'zero tolerance' policy regarding such conduct, his fellow students routinely subjected him to the kind of torment no one should have to endure," Dow said.
Calls to Superintendent Vincent Taffaro's office Tuesday were referred to Emerson's school board attorney Joanne Butler. Butler said the board disagrees with any determination of probable cause.
"The district has maintained throughout the entire course of the investigation that there was no bullying that took place and that any issues that were raised to the administration were addressed," she said.
Bullying and harassment in the schools gained attention after the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman and Ridgewood resident, in September. He killed himself after his roommate allegedly spied via a webcam on his liaison with a man.
Dow said the division is seeing an uptick in the filing of formal complaints about bullying in school. While in previous years there were one or two complaints, the division now has nine cases under investigation.
In August, the Civil Rights Division faulted school officials in Old Bridge for failing to stop the harassment of a student targeted because of his perceived sexual orientation as well as his Jewish faith.
"This action, like the Tyler Clementi case, like the legislation that was addressed, and like the matter in Old Bridge ... indicates that we have a problem that's taken on horrific dimensions in this new era," Dow said.
The state's investigation in Emerson began in 2007, when the family filed a complaint. With the finding announced Tuesday, the school board must either attempt to settle the case or face further litigation. Violators of the state's anti-discrimination laws can be fined up to $10,000. The law also provides for compensatory damages or changes in policies or training.
"One of the things that makes this particularly troubling for me as attorney general, and as a mother, is repeated complaints raised by the parents to the school officials about the conduct being ongoing," Dow said. "It's certainly incumbent on the school districts to be proactive."
State officials said "J.C. was the target of such slurs as 'gay,' 'homo' and 'faggot' during significant portions of his junior high and high school years." School records show that "discipline was rarely imposed," the state said.
In his freshman year, J.C. tore up most of the derogatory drawings he found of himself circulating around the school -- except for the one that depicted him performing oral sex on another boy. That one he gave to his father, who reported it to the school superintendent, who later said he didn't recall complaints about graphic drawings, according to the state filing.
In early 2004, J.C. was allegedly punched in the stomach by a middle school student. J.C.'s parents spoke to the student's mother and, later, the student allegedly threatened to slit J.C.'s throat.
J.C. was allegedly assaulted in high school wood-shop class in September 2005 by a different student. J.C.'s father complained by e-mail to high school Principal Israel Bordainick and Assistant Principal Richard Orso and, as a result, J.C.'s class schedule was changed. The state investigation found no evidence the assaulting student was disciplined or that his schedule was altered. State records also show that Bordainick sent an e-mail to J.C.'s father asserting that it was J.C. who had instigated the incident.
In May 2006, another student, identified as M.F., allegedly menaced J.C. by telling him he intended to bring a gun to school. The Emerson Police Department was notified, and a search of M.F.'s home resulted in the seizure of guns and knives belonging to M.F. and his father.
According to the state, M.F. was placed in a psychiatric facility for evaluation and was detained for weapons possession. He was released and allowed to return to school. In September 2006, J.C.'s father advised Taffaro that he was concerned for J.C.'s safety because -- despite assurances that M.F. would not be allowed near J.C. -- M.F. was scheduled to be in three classes with J.C.
The superintendent allegedly responded that the matter had been handled within district guidelines, and that the district had sought the expert opinions of a psychiatrist and the local police before allowing M.F. to return to school. Taffaro also advised J.C.'s father he could seek a restraining order if he felt it necessary, the state said.
"Make no mistake, Emerson's schools are an accomplice to the torture the young man had to endure," said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality.
For months, over two separate periods, J.C. was home-schooled. He graduated in May 2008 and is now taking college courses.
At Emerson Junior-Senior High School on Tuesday, students had mixed reactions to the state's case, although none said they knew the students involved.
Some described their school as friendly and close-knit with few problems.
David Palladino, 17, a senior, said the administration is quick to respond to any problems between students. If there is an incident, he said, the administration would have it "settled in five minutes. The principal calls everyone in," including parents.
But others shared stories of bullying and name-calling.
A 17-year old who declined to give her name said bullying is a problem in the school and most of it occurs on Facebook and through text messages. "To survive in this school, you need to be popular ... you need to be high-end," she said. "If you aren't, you are in the pool of nobodies."
She said those students are "fished out" and "ridiculed."