A Montclair parent has filed a lawsuit against the Montclair public school district on behalf of her daughter, alleging the district failed to take action while the girl was bullied for two years at Buzz Aldrin Middle School. 

In July 2020, Natalie Hackett and her lawyer, Jeffrey R. Youngman of Feitlin, Youngman, Karas & Gerson, LLC, filed a tort claim against the district on behalf of Hackett’s daughterthe district was negligent and breached its duty to protect the victim when she became the subject of bullying, harassment, abuse, retaliation, victimization, discrimination and assault following dozens of reported incidents against her between September 2018 and June 2020, the claim says. 

After Hackett filed a complaint in 2019, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found Buzz Aldrin Middle School had failed to adequately address both issues of harassment, intimidation and bullying and retaliation reported by the family, the claim says. The outcome of the investigation placed the district on a Corrective Action Plan, and it was instructed to address the findings, according to the claim.

The district's only response to the tort claim was to deny its allegations, Youngman said. But that response from a school district faced with claims like Hackett’s is “entirely common and consistent,” he said. 

On June 17, Hackett and Youngman followed up the tort claim with a lawsuit. 

Hackett told Montclair Local she was advised by Youngman not to speak with the press. Nina DeRosa, executive assistant to schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds, responded to an email sent Monday to Ponds saying district officials “cannot comment on legal matters.”

The suit lists more than 50 instances of bullying and harassment toward Hackett’s daughter and names several plaintiffs: the Montclair public school district, the Montclair Board of Education, Buzz Aldrin Middle School, former Buzz Aldrin principal Jill Sack, current Buzz Aldrin principal Major B. Jennings, former district superintendents Kendra Johnson and Nathan Parker, district staff members and students.

The alleged incidents took place between September 2018 and March 2020, according to the lawsuit. Students allegedly called Hackett’s African American daughter racist names, such as “tar baby,” “sharpie” and “blackie,” physically accosted her on the playground and cyber bullied her, sharing inappropriate and edited images of her.

The suit also alleges that district staff members retaliated against Hackett’s daughter, accusing her of provoking the harassment from classmates, requiring her to undergo counseling for attempting to defend herself and urging her to move out of the district.

And the allegations also included incidents involving Hackett herself — the suit claims that Johnson made veiled threats regarding Hackett’s employment, blocked her emails to school officials and that security was frequently called when she entered the school building. 

The allegations involving Hackett are telling, Youngman said. 

“What happens too often is the school is annoyed by the parent and takes it out on the child,” Youngman said. “We don't like the parents, so we ignore the child.”

But the harassment toward Hackett’s daughter is “egregious” and the instances of bullying “speak for themselves,” Youngman said. 

“The amount of racism and abuse that for some reason has been tolerated is unfathomable to me,” Youngman said.

The attorney is no stranger to cases like Hackett’s — Youngman said he receives at least a call a day about similar cases, but only agrees to work on about 10% of them, those that are the most severe.

In 2012, Youngman represented Sawyer Rosenstein who was paralyzed in 2006 at 12 years old after a punch from a Ramsey school district classmate caused a clot in a major artery. The district paid $4.2 million to settle the lawsuit by Rosenstein’s family. Youngman also represented 15-year-old Lennon Baldwin who died by suicide in 2012 after he was assaulted, robbed and threatened by Morristown High School students. In 2018, Baldwin’s family was awarded $625,000 by the Morristown district.

Though there are several defendants named in the suit, Youngman said it is the school he seeks to hold responsible.

“The liability and the responsibility for the safety of the child is with the school,” Youngman said. “It's not with fellow students.”

In all the lawsuits he has handled like Hackett’s, alleging instances of severe harassment and bullying that are neglected by a school district, Youngman said the districts have been found liable. 

The defendants will be served the complaint and given a chance to file a response, a process that takes about 60 days, Youngman said. 

Two Montclair public schools failed to meet Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act standards during the 2020-21 school year and three schools saw their scores decrease from the previous year, according to a report presented at a March 21 Montclair Board of Education meeting. But Buzz Aldrin received the highest score in the district in the report, more than 30 points higher than the lowest ranked school in the district: Hillside School. 

One of the top recommendations in the report was more personnel, including a dedicated districtwide anti-bullying coordinator. Marcos Vargas, the school system’s director of humanities, had served as the anti-bullying coordinator since September 2020. A former coordinator, Andrew Evangelista, is also one of the defendants in the suit. 

At its June 1 meeting, the board approved the hire of a dedicated anti-bullying coordinator, Maggie E. Shaver-Dock.