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N.J. panel criticizes school district over bullying of student

Officials found that the Jackson Twp. district did not do enough to protect a bisexual student.

TRENTON - State officials say an Ocean County school district may not have done enough to prevent harassment of a bisexual student.

"Despite repeatedly calling it to the attention of school authorities, the complainant in this case appears to have been exposed to a harassing environment that was, over a period of years, both severe and persuasive," J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, said in a statement yesterday.

The civil rights division made a finding of probable cause against the Jackson Township School District, which means it thinks there is enough evidence to pursue the case.

The case will be submitted to a process designed to resolve issues without going to a judge.

Action against the district comes after the state Supreme Court found that New Jersey's antidiscrimination law protects students from harassment.

The February ruling concerning the Toms River Regional School District involved bullying over perceived homosexuality.

In Jackson Township, the district is accused of allowing a hostile environment to prevail against a self-described bisexual student born in Honduras who attended Jackson Memorial High School from September 2002 to June 2006.

School officials learned in 2003 the student was possibly being harassed over sexuality and national origin, according to an investigation.

Administrators verbally warned a number of students and required sensitivity training for three. But officials with the civil rights division cited failings in the district's response.

Two students shouted an antigay slur in the presence of a guidance counselor who took no action, according to investigators.

The bisexual student requested a class transfer in November 2005 because of what the student said were persistent jokes and derogatory comments. In May 2006, the student told school authorities of being followed to class by four students who insinuated a death threat, according to the Division of Civil Rights.

A district spokeswoman said yesterday school officials would challenge the state's finding.

State investigators examined documents but never interviewed district employees involved in the case, district spokeswoman Allison Erwin said.

"We want to participate in the process. We want our opportunity to present our side of the matter," Erwin said.

A leading advocate for New Jersey's gay community welcomed the state's stepped-up enforcement against harassment in schools. "This is another sign that New Jersey is a true national progressive leader," said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality.

A ruling against the district could result in penalties of up to $10,000.