New Jersey school racial harassment case heading to trial

We are in the final days before our pretrial conference in this peer racial harassment case heading to trial in Newark, New Jersey. In this case, against the Lenape Valley Regional Board of Education, and Lenape Valley Regional High School Principal Douglas deMarrais, our clients Edward and Leeann Lee sued to recover damages to their then-teenage multi-racial son, who was harassed at school. They brought claims under federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination in school.

In the lawsuit, the defendants admitted much of the conduct the plaintiffs alleged in their Complaint. In fact, the principal admitted that E.L. (the student) was subjected to “an inordinate number of incidents [of racial slurs]” during his 13 months at Lenape Valley Regional High School, where he was one of only a small percentage of minority students. During discovery in this case, Mr. deMarrais admitted that between November 2004 and January 2006, Leeann and Edward Lee complained of racial slurs made to their son on multiple occasions, many of which the school confirmed. Defendants admitted the Lees complained that during his Freshman year (November 2004 thought June 2005) their son “E.L.” was called the “n” word on the school bus on at least three occasions by three different students, another racial slur by a student on the basketball team, and another racial slur by three girls; and between September 2005 and January 2006, their son was called “ghetto or gangster” by a student who had called him the “n” word the previous year, called the “n” word by a girl who had used the word towards their son the previous year, was told he would be “picking [the] cotton” of a Caucasian student, called the “n” word by that same student a week later, and called the “n” word by another student shortly after.

Even though Plaintiffs had reported all the harassment to the school, very little, and often nothing, was done to discipline the harassers or take proactive measures to prevent future harassment. After an incident where E.L. was called the “n” word that resulted in E.L. and the harasser fighting, the Defendants told E.L. that he could not come back to the school, and put him on home instruction pending another placement.

During the litigation, the Defendants have followed a “blame the victim” approach, arguing that E.L. had anger issues that preceded his attendance at the school, which ultimately led to them asking him to leave, and claiming that nothing they did or didn’t do caused him any harm.

However, as Federal Judge Cavanaugh noted in Ordering this case to trial,“in a discussion between Mr. deMarrais and Plaintiffs about Lenape’s response to repeated instances of racial harassment, Mr. deMarrais told Mrs. Lee he would ‘take the blame for last year.'” The Judge also found there was evidence that “E.L…responded to the incidents of racism negatively. …Ultimately E.L. was told he had to leave Lenape and that he could never return. Throughout E.L.’s time at Lenape incidents of racism persisted.”

The suit seeks money damages, a finding that E.L was expelled by Lenape without due process, and a finding that the Defendants failed to remedy the racial harassment.

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