BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Natalie Hackett says her daughter was a happy kid in honors classes, juggling sports, playing four instruments, singing in a band and performing when she moved to Montclair from West Orange in 2018.
The family said that they had expected the same type of welcoming educational community, but when the 12-year-old entered Buzz Aldrin Middle School to begin seventh grade, the girl was targeted in online chats with racial insults and threats for nearly two school years.
The girl, who is African American, was allegedly called “blackie,” “tar baby,” “burnt stick,” “shadow” and other slurs referencing her race and skin color. Students also told the girl, “You look like you jumped in a bucket of black paint,” according to a notice of tort claim filed against the district on July 1 by attorney Jeffrey R. Youngman, who is representing the victim.
Newly installed Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said he could not comment on a specific student situation or anticipated litigation, as it would compromise the confidentiality of a student.
“I assure you that Montclair Public Schools investigates all incidents or allegations of harassment, intimidation and bullying [HIB],” Ponds said. “There are age-appropriate consequences for students found to have violated our policies. In addition, safety protocols are individually and carefully developed for students as appropriate. The safety and welfare of our students is of utmost importance.”
ALLEGATIONS OF BULLYING
The document claims the girl, now 13 years old, was targeted by students for “her identifying characteristics, skin tone, race and hair texture, among other things.” It also alleges that, rather than addressing the incidents with the students, the district only provided her with “inadequate, insufficient and sporadic adult supervision to escort her to classes” while incidents continued unchecked.
The claim alleges the district was negligent and breached its duty to protect the victim when she became the subject of bullying, harassment, abuse, retaliation, victimization, discrimination and assault following dozens of reported incidents against her between September 2018 and June 2020.
According to the documents, students would examine her scalp and hair to determine if she was wearing a wig or weave because of her hair texture. Students then started calling her “wig girl” or “weave girl” both online and in person.
Students “posing as friends” would invite her to hang with them and then publicly humiliate her, while bystanders laughed. The claim alleges that a guidance counselor termed this “normal middle school behavior.”
Then, in March of 2019, the family said the assaults became physical when the girl was allegedly surrounded and repeatedly assaulted by a group of five or more boys on the playground.
As the playground contains cameras, the family asked to see the video and suggested involving the police. However, Hackett said, hours later the family was told that the video “accidentally taped over itself.”
In May of 2019, a security officer intervened after the girl was surrounded on the playground by another large group of students hurling obscenities at her, according to the claim documents. Hackett then pulled her out of Buzz Aldrin and requested home instruction.
“She was afraid to go to school, started having nightmares and felt unsafe. What’s worse is she had no adults at school to rely on when she needed help, so I decided to keep her home,” Hackett said.
The district agreed to provide a home instructor for her, Hackett said, but after being home for nearly a month, no instruction was provided. When the family received letters threatening retention for absences, the family returned the girl to school. Upon her return, the district began providing limited daily adult supervision to escort her to and sit with her in classes, Hackett said.
The district then hired a private investigator to look into the allegations, after Hackett publicly raised her concerns about the bullying at a May 2019 Board of Education meeting.
The investigator’s report determined that the victim had been bullied, the tort claim states.
In August 2019, the family filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The outcome of the investigation placed the district on a Corrective Action Plan, and it was instructed to address the findings, according to the claim.
According to the OCR findings, the school failed to adequately address both issues of harassment, intimidation and bullying and retaliation reported by the family, the claim says. The OCR complaint is pending.
The district denied Hackett’s request for a 504 plan for her daughter, which allows for accommodations in the classroom to ensure academic success, and then demoted her out of the honors math class in the middle of the semester, according to the claim.
“The situation caused my daughter to withdraw and stop wanting to participate in activities she once loved,” Hackett said. “Playing basketball was no longer fun when she had to worry about being taunted. She no longer wanted to act or perform, which was her passion for seven years.
“She had to see three therapists, visit doctors, wear a heart monitor, get an attorney to advocate for her and more, which racked up serious debt.”
A tort claim alerts a public entity to an incident and gives it time to conduct an investigation and decide if it would like to settle the matter before the claimant files a lawsuit. The claimant must wait six months after the filing of the tort claim before being permitted to file suit.
“The school allowed a culture of harassment, intimidation, bullying and abuse to exist within its midst and failed to protect the student in any way,” Youngman said. “As is always the case with HIB, when left unaddressed, or addressed inadequately, the child ends up being victimized, ostracized and isolated.”
ANTI-BULLYING IN SCHOOLS
Incidents of harassment and bullying have increased in Montclair, according to the state reporting system. The district reported 51 incidents for the 2018-19 school year, with the Hillside and Bradford elementary schools having the highest number of incidents.
For the 2017-18 school year, 40 incidents were reported, more than triple the number from the 2016-17 school year.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act was signed into law in 2011 and upgraded a 2002 law by placing new requirements on schools to prevent harassment, intimidation and bullying and set strict procedures for how to investigate reported incidents. It also set up public reporting guidelines.
According to the law, reports of harassment must be reported to the principal on the same day as the alleged incident; the principal then informs the parents. An investigation by the school’s anti-bullying specialist must be completed within 10 days. The superintendent then decides on a course of action depending on the outcome of the investigation. Parents have the right to appeal the decision.
Buzz Aldrin Principal Jill Sack and former superintendents Kendra Johnson and Nathan Parker are named in the notice.