Middle school can be a difficult time for any child. But a Montclair family describes how their daughter was the victim of relentless bullying for nearly two years at Buzz Aldrin Middle School and says the school failed to protect their daughter.
Natalie Hackett is accusing the Montclair School District of negligence, saying it breached its duty to protect her daughter, a 7th grade student attending Buzz Aldrin Middle School. Hackett says her daugher, who is African American, became the victim of bullying, harassment, abuse, discrimination and a playground assault by a group of boys.
Attorney Jeffrey R. Youngman, of Feitlin, Youngman, Karas & Gerson, LLC, who is representing the victim, filed a Tort Claim on July 1, 2020 on behalf of the teen, now 13 years old. The incidents started when she was 12 years old.
The Claim, which names former Schools Superintendents Dr. Kendra Johnson and Dr. Nathan Parker as well as other Montclair Schools staff, details dozens of reported incidents against the victim between September 2018 and June 2020, stating that the victim was taunted both in-person and in an online chat, based on her race, skin color, hair and body type. Screenshots of a group chat show students using racial slurs, such as “burnt toast,” “tar baby,” “sharpie” and “blackie” to describe the victim and telling her “You look like you jumped in a bucket of black paint.”
In person, the Claim states, students would examine the victim’s scalp and hair to determine if she was wearing a wig or weave. Students then started calling her “wig girl” or “weave girl” both online and in-person.
When the family notified the school of the bullying incident over text and shared the screenshots, Hackett, who is a principal in another school district, says only a few students were disciplined, but others continued to bully the victim and the group grew to more than 30 aggressors. The family claims school officials began to defend the behaviors of some of the aggressors and blame the victim for the abuse she was suffering.
“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,” says Youngman. “As is always the case with Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB), when left unaddressed, or addressed inadequately, the child ends up being victimized, ostracized and isolated.”
Hackett describes her daughter as a happy student who was in honors classes and played sports and loved performance before the family moved to Montclair from West Orange and her daughter started 7th grade at Buzz Aldrin Middle School. Now she has nightmares and anxiety attacks.
According to the Claim, students, ‘posing’ as friends, would invite the victim to hang with them and then publicly humiliate her, while bystanders laughed. In another incident, a student reportedly threw a pencil at the victim’s face.
Hackett shared screenshots showing how her daughter was invited to group chats, where she was then told “we only invited u so we can bully u.” Hackett says students would message her daughter, calling her a “whore” or a “weirdo.”
The Claim alleges that a guidance counselor dismissed some of the incidents as “normal middle school behavior.”
“In an age where bullying is frowned upon and kids are taught at home and in school not to bully, you would think that the Montclair School District would have done everything in their power to keep my daughter safe,” said Hackett. “Instead, they became bullies themselves.”
Hackett, frustrated with the continued bullying and lack of action by school officials after sending some 200 emails reporting 50 incidents, raised her concerns about the bullying publicly at a Montclair Board of Education meeting. The Claim then states that the District hired a private investigator.
According to Hackett, an investigator interviewed the victim for more than three hours, never informing the victim or her mother that they were both being investigated as possible aggressors. It wasn’t until more than five months later, when the investigator’s report was released to the Board, that the family was informed that they had both been the target of the investigation and it was determined that the victim had been bullied, after all, the Claim asserts.
Hackett, who says her daughter was experiencing frequent, debilitating anxiety attacks at school, requested a 504 plan for her daughter. The district denied the request.
In August of 2019, the family filed a formal complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The outcome of the investigation placed the district on a Corrective Action Plan (CAP) and they were instructed to address the findings.
Hackett claimed, “We were shocked to learn that the school officials were not investigating matters reported to them. They just completely ignored my emails.”
According to the findings of the investigation conducted by the OCR, it was revealed that the School failed to adequately address both issues of HIB and retaliation reported by the family. The complaint is still pending.
“All we want is for our daughter to be educated in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. The District has failed miserably, in every regard.” Hackett said, who adds that the bullying continued online when Montclair Schools switched over to all remote learning.
Hackett says she does not blame the children, but blames the district for not intervening to address and correct their behavior.
Montclair School Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Ponds, who started in his new position on July 1, said he could not comment on the specific student situation or anticipated litigation, adding that he would not “compromise the confidentiality of one of our students.”
“However, I assure you that Montclair Public Schools investigates all incidents or allegations of harassment, intimidation and bullying. 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,” he added.
The racist remarks directed at Hackett’s daughter via text echo experiences voiced by students at Black Lives Matter events earlier this year where they shared how they experienced racism in Montclair schools and how they felt staff and students alike made insensitive and racist comments, including former students who experienced racism and bullying.
Hackett hopes that by speaking out, she can finally help her daughter heal and be able to learn again in an environment where she feels safe, as well as shed light on a larger issue in the Montclair Schools.