July 28, 2020 (Woodbury, NJ) — The Sikh Coalition continues to pursue justice for a New Jersey Sikh student who has suffered under a pattern of racial- and religious-based bullying since 2018. As of last Friday, the Gloucester County Special Services School District Board of Education was ordered to submit an answer to the complaint filed against them in May by the Sikh Coalition and co-counsel. After their answer is filed with the Court, the case will head to mediation–the process under New Jersey law by which these kinds of complaints are first addressed before moving to a civil trial.

On June 24, the Board of Education filed a motion to dismiss our initial complaint. As a reminder, this same board previously failed to take action to help the Sikh student after two investigations. They repeatedly downplayed the extent of the bullying at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology (GCIT), which was so severe that the student had to be removed from school. In denying the problem, they insisted on characterizing obviously bias-motivated attacks as just ‘nicknames’ among students.

After a reply from the Sikh Coalition, however, Judge Timothy Chell has determined that the family’s complaint presents sufficient facts to state a “cause of action,” meaning that the case will move forward. This is a significant step forward in ensuring that the school board faces some outside accountability for their failure to help this child and take the harassment they faced seriously.

“I am disappointed but not at all surprised that the School Board has not acknowledged–much less apologized for–their failure to keep my child safe at GCIT,” said the student’s mother, who remains anonymous. “It is clear, however, from Judge Chell’s ruling that authorities outside the district see that the trauma my child endured matters. If we do not reach a satisfactory end through mediation, I believe that a civil court will see the board’s clear pattern of discrimination and inaction and force them to begin to make this right.”

In advance of mediation, the Sikh Coalition continues to collect evidence regarding what appears to be a systemic problem with harassment and bullying at GCIT. In addition, our legal team has engaged the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights and encouraged them to pursue a broader investigation into the environment that school officials and the board are creating for GCIT’s minority students.

“We are uncovering more and more about the rampant, widespread racism at GCIT, which makes the failure of the school board to confront and discipline that behavior all the more unacceptable,” said Giselle Klapper, Sikh Coalition Senior Staff Attorney. “One way or another, we expect restorative justice for this student–as well as meaningful change to help other racial and religious minorities who may still be suffering from the same kind of malice from their peers and neglect from those who should protect them.” 

Even after more than a year out of school, the effects of the bullying on this student persist: they remain in treatment for negative mental health consequences of their experience. And while students across New Jersey were transitioned to distance learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this student–who was already learning from home–has been subjected to additional reporting burdens and reduced learning time. 

Per our previous research, the Sikh Coalition continues to recognize that Sikh youth remain at an increased risk of bullying in U.S. public schools. If you or a child you know is suffering, please reach out to us for free legal aid at legal@sikhcoalition.org.  

As always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly.