NJ.com – Sikh student called a terrorist, targeted with racial slurs while school did nothing, suit claims

Matt Gray

Gloucester County – New Jersey – USA, 20 May 2020. Students targeted a Sikh high schooler with racial slurs and called him a terrorist, while school officials failed to stop the abuse, according to a lawsuit filed in Superior Court.

The Gloucester County Institute of Technology student’s mother has filed a lawsuit on her son’s behalf alleging the county special services school district board of education violated the state Law Against Discrimination by refusing to address the bullying, which she says was based on his religious faith and national origin.

She also alleges he faced retaliation for speaking up about the mistreatment.

Her 17-year-old son, identified only by the initials A.M. in the lawsuit, has suffered from health problems as a result of the abuse and has been forced to continue his schooling from home, the suit states.

A.M. is of “South Asian descent, has brown skin and is a member of the Sikh religion,” according to the suit, which claims he was targeted over his religion and appearance.

Trouble began in his freshman year, when a student allegedly called him a terrorist in front of others in the school cafeteria. Issues continued in 10th grade, when that same student called A.M. “sand cricket” and “sand n—–,” the suit claims. Other students began joining in, with one repeatedly calling him “sand cricket” during gym class.

In addition to these terms, A.M. was targeted for his religious wear, “including the kara, a Sikh article of faith, which he wears around his wrist.” Two gym teachers were present when students “would openly bully and harass” A.M.

“We believe that the facts show that he was being harassed, intimidated and bulled and that it was motivated by his being Sikh and/or of Indian descent,” said the family’s attorney, Brian M. Cige. “That’s bad in and of itself, but the failure of the school to take the allegations seriously allowed this behavior to continue.”

GCIT officials did not respond to a request for comment.

In December 2018, A.M. and his mother met with Assistant Principal Joyann Ford to report the behavior, but say nothing changed. After that meeting, A.M. tried to resolve the issue himself by asking the students to stop using “racial slurs and derogatory names,” but the behavior continued.

A.M. began meeting with a therapist a month later and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, according to the lawsuit.

The family met with Ford and a school HIB (harassment, intimidation, bullying) specialist to explain that the mistreatment was continuing and that A.M. “was suffering from medical issues and under professional care as a result of the constant bullying, mocking, intimidation and harassment.”

The school began an investigation but found no evidence that A.M. was the target of harassment, intimidation or bullying, according to the suit.

The complaint describes another incident from January 2019 when one of the students in homeroom said “Look, it’s sand cricket” and “sand cricket looks upset.” Another student took out his phone to show an image he had created by taking a character from an animated film and placing A.M.’s face on the figure.

A.M. got up and asked his teacher for permission to go to the nurse’s office, where he explained what had just happened. Later that day, he said he received a message via Snapchat from one of the students involved in the homeroom incident, saying that A.M. had snitched on them and may have ruined a student’s career at GCIT.

After A.M. filed a complaint with the school, one GCIT official allegedly told him that another student identified in the complaint had done nothing wrong by calling him “sand cricket,” saying it was simply a nickname.

School officials also demanded A.M. “stop turning in students, as it was making them do too much work,” according to the suit.

Because of his issues at school, A.M.’s pediatrician recommended that he only go to GCIT for testing and only under adult supervision, and later advised that homeschooling may be necessary because of the teen’s PTSD, extreme anxiety, depression and blackouts caused by stress from the bullying.

He began homeschooling in February 2019 and has remained in that situation ever since. Before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in March, A.M. was receiving five hours a week of in-person instruction from a school employee who came to his home.

Now that all students are learning remotely, A.M.’s schooling has been reduced to about 90 minutes a week of remote instruction, with no teacher coming to his home. Meanwhile, other GCIT students are receiving full schedules of remote instruction each school day, Cige said.

In return for raising concerns, A.M. was forced to isolate himself and take classes from home, since the district didn’t address the problem, according to his attorney. He remains separated from his classmates even while all students are now learning remotely. “Even after all the other children were receiving homeschooling, he was not reintegrated into his classroom,” Cige said.

A.M. continues to experience “difficulties with isolation as a result of being home schooled,” according to the suit, and would like to return to school in September if the district can address his complaints.

“We would like some sensitivity training so that the school recognizes the seriousness of the allegations that were raised and takes concrete action to educate so that this doesn’t continue to be an issue,” Cige said.

The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group based in New York City, has joined as a non-profit co-counsel on the case.

In addition to seeking remedies to the alleged discrimination, the state Law Against Discrimination allows compensatory damages for emotional distress and to cover litigation costs.

A.M. continues to work hard, Cige noted.

“While some students facing similar challenges might see their academic performance plummet, that hasn’t been the case here,” the attorney said. “His grades are fine. I’m pleased to say that his academic performance is good.”