NJ teen punished as ‘bully,’ investigated by cops for blogging about teachers: lawsuit
BRIDGEWATER — Arice, the daughter of Asian immigrants, stood out in a school that was mostly white.
The target of teasing and bullying by a few of her classmates, it didn’t help, she says, that some teachers kept mispronouncing her name as a-RICE, even though she had reminded them it was A-ris.
Angry and frustrated, she went online and started a blog.
“I mean, she calls me A.Rice. EVERY FREAKIN’ TIME. A.RICE IS NOT MY NAME! IT’S ARICE!” she wrote in a self-styled "rant" about the teacher on her site. “She KNOWS my name is Arice, she’s just doing it to insult me.”
The middle school student's blog covered other tribulations at Eisenhower Intermediate School: a teacher she thought was spending too much time checking email; what she really felt about art class; why she didn’t like some classmates. The posts were sardonic, humorous, satirical. She never named names.
Then one day midway through the school year she was called to the principal’s office. She was in trouble, accused of violating school policies on cyberbullying and vandalism and violence — all because of her blog.
As she cried, a school administrator informed her father she was suspended for five days.
She would be required to undergo a mental health evaluation before she could return.
And more seriously, school officials notified township police, who showed up at her house and searched her room for any hidden firearms or weapons. They found none.
Three years later, the family is suing the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District, claiming that the district’s anti-bullying policy is unconstitutional and that the school subjected her to emotional distress and humiliation.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Superior Court in Somerville, is the latest civil liberties challenge against school policies developed after the state’s anti-bullying law went into effect in 2011.
Earlier this school year, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey defended a Fair Lawn high school student who was accused of bullying a pro-Israel student with an anti-Israel post on Twitter. After much controversy, school officials determined the tweet was not bullying.
Responding to the case, ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom in March said “the anti-bullying law can be misused to stifle free expression, far from its intent to meaningfully address harassing behavior.”
Not long after the law was passed, a Tenafly family tried to get a federal judge to strike down the statute on constitutional grounds after their fourth-grade son was accused of bullying a student because he revealed to peers that she in fact had head lice.
The case didn't get to that point, however, because the family and school officials agreed to settle. The district removed the punishment from the student’s record and paid the family $21,600, according to the settlement finalized in February, a copy of which was obtained by New Jersey 101.5.
The family’s attorney, John McDonnell, of the Warren County firm McDonnell Artigliere, says he’s not against anti-bullying laws.
But Bridgewater-Raritan’s policy is “unduly vague and over broad” and “things that are not severe or pervasive are resulting in suspensions.”
“Kids should be able to debate, to say things. They shouldn’t have to look around their shoulders about everything they say,” he said in an interview with New Jersey 101.5.
“It’s the First Amendment for a reason. It’s what separates our great country from most other counties in the world,” he said. “But we are eroding that right with these bullying laws, which are very well intentioned."
Bridgewater-Raritan Superintendent Russell M. Lazovick's office did not respond to a request for comment.
But the lawsuit details instances and blog posts they say the district found problematic.
A blog post by Arice on May 2, 2013, railed against an “annoying teacher” and concluded with the following lines:
I JUST FEEL SO MUCH ANGER AN EMOTIONS IN ME! I JUST WANT TO KILL HER AND TOSS HER BODY IN A RIVER (but I can’t ‘cause I’m not old enough to kill people yet – LOL don’t kill … yet … :-o)
Three students said she had “a history of slamming others’ lockers, knocking books out of people’s hands and screaming in people’s faces,” the lawsuit says the district claimed.
These students told officials that Arice said she had a “kill list” and wanted to be the next “Osama bin Laden” and “could not wait to be old enough to get a gun permit.”
Officials said she asked a Muslim student why she couldn’t wear a bathing suit at the beach, the lawsuit says.
Her attorney says the comments and posts were “tongue in cheek” and didn't amount to bullying.
“The whole thing is sarcastic,” he said about the blog, which Arice has since taken offline.
A mental health evaluation conducted at Somerset Medical Center following her suspension concluded that she was not a “danger to herself, others or property.”
The lawsuit, which is seeking an unspecified amount in damages, argues that her “constitutional rights were chilled” and that she was disciplined for her exercising her rights to free speech.
She also faced retaliation for calling out certain teachers for their behavior, the complaint says.
“Instead of sending her for help, all they did was suspend her and call the cops,” McDonnell said.
“A sixth-grade child who is of a different race has a right to feel that she is being wronged when a teacher, after being corrected, continues to call her A-Rice,” he said. “Do your job and pronounce the name correctly.”
Arice, now 15, no longer attends the Bridgewater-Raritan school district.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.