Calling fictional cop a ‘pig’ got NJ student suspended, lawsuit says
HACKETTSTOWN — A student who was suspended after calling a fictional police officer a "pig" now claims district administrators made offensive comments about her race and sexual orientation.
The allegation is in a lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday by the mother of the 17-year-old girl who attended Hackettstown High School. The lawsuit says she hasn't attended school since last May because of alleged harassment against her.
Because the girl is a minor she is not identified by name, but is acknowledged to be both bi-racial and gay.
The lawsuit claims that the student was wrongfully suspended for an "unintentional" violation of the school's harassment, intimidation and bullying standards, and that district officials used offensive slurs during its investigation into the matter.
The lawsuit says that during a class reading of the play "Blood Brothers" by Willy Russell, in which "a corrupt police officer treats two suspects differently based on their economic status," the girl volunteered to play the "pig."
The teacher, identified as Kathleen Matlack, reprimanded the girl for calling the officer a pig, at which time she apologized, the lawsuit says.
Despite the apology, the lawsuit says that later in the day the girl's mother was contacted by Principal Mathew Scanlon to inform her that her daughter was being investigated for violating the school's anti-bullying policy. The school, according to the lawsuit, said that a classmate whose parent is a police officer could have been offended by her use of the word pig. The lawsuit says that the other student was not in the class at the time the statement was made.
The girl told school officials that calling the officer a pig was only meant for the character in the play and not how she viewed all police officers, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says that when officials spoke to the girl, Jennifer Spukes, the school's bullying policy specialist, used a racial slur against black people and Assistant Principal Kevin O'Leary used the word "fag" to compare her use of the word "pig." The girl says she objected to their use of those terms but they continued using them.
It was not the first time the girl had clashed with school officials over matters of race in a school where just 19 of the 920 students are black.
The lawsuit says the girl and other students were called down to O'Leary's office after being involved in an informal discussion on confrontations between police and black people. O'Leary told the girl that "all lives matter" and the girl interpreted that to mean that she was not not allowed to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement in school, the lawsuit says.
Spukes also told the girl that "other people" were "offended" after listening to her private conversations about political issues, the lawsuit says.
After the meeting, which the lawsuit calls an "interrogation," the girl was told by O'Leary that she had committed an "unintentional HIB offense" and would have to serve one day of in-school suspension.
Since the investigation into the incident, the girl has been "singled out by the administration for minor infractions around the school," which resulted in her dropping out of extracurricular activities and a drop in her grades, according to the lawsuit. The girl also has not attended school since May of last year due to the "harassing and hostile actions" by school personnel.
"It is hard to determine what is more outrageous: A 17-year old student being suspended for using the word "pig in the middle of an English class discussion about a fictional cop, or the slurs allegedly uttered by school personnel while "investigating" her use of that word," her attorney, John Rue, said Tuesday.
Rue added that it was "hard enough" to be 17, "let alone one who is gay and biracial."
"No student, regardless of sexual preference or race, should be subjected to the inexcusable conduct as alleged in the complaint," he said.
An after-hours phone call and email sent to district superintendent David Mango was not returned.
The lawsuit seeks to show that the manner in which the district applied its bullying policy was unconstitutional based on state and federal law, and seeks an unspecified amount of damages and court costs.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-353-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com