NEWARK, N.J. — A northern New Jersey school district said Thursday it didn’t ignore the concerns of a family that says their 12-year-old daughter’s suicide in June was caused by bullying.
The family of Mallory Grossman filed a notice of intent to sue the Rockaway Township School District last week. The notice is required under state law before a lawsuit is filed.
At an Aug. 1 news conference, Bruce Nagel, an attorney for the family, described text and Snapchat messages from fellow students that were “vile and malicious,” including one that told Mallory, “Why don’t you kill yourself?”
Dianne Grossman said she and her husband repeatedly contacted school officials to tell them of the bullying, but that their response was inadequate.
In Thursday’s statement emailed by Superintendent Greg McGann, the school district said it wouldn’t comment on the legal notice on the advice of its lawyers and to comply with a request from the Morris County prosecutor’s office, which is investigating.
“The District however, is permitted to correct misinformation,” the statement said. “The allegation that the Rockaway Township School District ignored the Grossman family and failed to address bullying in general, is categorically false.”
Mallory’s death brings into focus a difficult issue facing school districts in the age of social media: How far does their legal responsibility extend, particularly when much of the alleged behavior takes place online?
New Jersey was one of the first states to toughen its anti-bullying laws. Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed “anti-bullying bill of rights” legislation in January 2011, months after Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him and another man in his dorm room.
New Jersey’s law covers electronic communications and verbal or physical harassment. It also says a school is responsible for addressing bullying that occurs off school grounds if a school employee is made aware and if the behavior “substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students.”
Those requirements can create some gray areas, according to Vito Gagliardi, an attorney who has represented New Jersey school districts in negligence cases, including one involving a teen’s suicide in 2012.
“It’s a relatively new area of the law,” Gagliardi said. “Look, we’ve been wrestling for about 220-some years about what the First Amendment means. It can take a lot of time to flesh out how statutes are interpreted.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2015 that suicide was the third-leading cause of death among children ages 10 to 14. The rise in social media usage is seen as a factor.
“Before social media, in school kids were teased, but now it’s words in front of them on a screen, and it’s much more lasting to see it on a screen,” said Caroline Fenkel, a licensed clinical social worker at Connecticut-based Newport Academy, a teen rehab center. “And the big problem in the helping setting is that I can’t control it, and the school can’t control it. They can’t say, ‘Don’t Snapchat mean things.'”