New Jersey district to pay Hispanic students $500,000 to settle suit over alleged discriminatory discipline
The Courier-Post reports that the Camden Board of Education has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a suit brought by seven Hispanic students, who were made to eat lunch on the floor as punishment for spilling a jug of water. The February 2008 incident, which occurred at Charles Sumner Elementary School, has stirred claims of bias and underscored tensions between the city’s black and Hispanic communities.
Without admitting any guilt, the Camden Board of Education recently approved the settlement with the former fifth-grade students. Under the settlement, the students will split $280,000, and their attorney, Alan H. Schorr of Cherry Hill, will get $220,000.
The board had previously settled with the students’ teacher, Jose Rivera, who was fired after reporting the incident to the board of education. Rivera, who holds a teaching job in another district, was awarded $75,000, with $50,000 of that payment going to Schorr. The administrator who imposed the punishment, Theresa Brown, was reassigned to another school. Members of the Hispanic community, including several then-members of the school board and city council, had called for Brown’s firing.
According to the suit, the punishment occurred after a student in Rivera’s bilingual class – overseen that day by a substitute teacher – tried to change a jug of water in a water cooler and caused a spill. Brown then allegedly punished the class of about 15 Puerto Rican students by making them eat on the cafeteria floor, while other classes were seated at tables. Some students in Rivera’s class were absent on the day of the spill, but they also were subject to the continuing punishment, the lawsuit says. Brown also threatened the students with additional punishment if they told anyone about the punishment, the lawsuit says.
A review by the state Department of Education concluded Brown had forced students to eat on the floor as punishment for five consecutive days, but it said that was not a racist act. The Department rejected Brown’s assertion that her decision reflected a lack of available seats and trays. The report said the students’ punishment was a “recurring practice” at Sumner due to the “failures of the school administration and lunch room supervision.”
Both of the Hispanic school board members serving at the time of the incident, Luis Lopez, who is now a city council member, and Amalia Adame, voted against transferring Brown rather than firing her. Lopez and Councilman Frank Moran, who is now the president of the city council, attended rallies to protest the board’s handling of the incident. Lopez called Brown’s transfer – rather than firing – “a slap in the face to the Hispanic community.” Dissatisfied with the state DOE’s finding, the city’s Human Relations Commission conducted its own review.
Source: courierpostonline.com, 8/13/12, By Kevin C. Shelly
[Editor's Note: In December 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in Education Week, which reported that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had opened 74 “compliance reviews” in states, school districts, and higher education institutions, nine of which focused on the disproportionate use of discipline against minority students.]