A West Orange boy’s complaint that he was the target of anti-Semitic slurs by another boy is testing New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law.
It has also attracted some heartening statements of support for the boy’s family, who are not seeking a legal remedy to the incident but rather an apology from the perpetrator and a raising of awareness in the local community.
The alleged victim, a 12-year-old boy who attends the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, said he was with his mother and his younger sister in Millburn on Friday, Sept. 16, after school. When his mother and sister went into Starbucks he waited outside. He still had his yarmulke on, although he doesn’t always wear it outside of school or synagogue.
“After a short while, a group of kids walked past — a girl and two boys,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. One of the boys was easily identifiable, according to those involved. “He gave me the finger and said, ‘F—-ing yarmulkes.’ Then he passed into Starbucks. Another girl passed by who was younger, maybe in eighth or ninth grade. She said, ‘I don’t like people who wear yarmulkes.’ I took off my yarmulke and went inside. They were right behind us. I didn’t want to tell my mom in public like that.”
He waited until they left Starbucks and got in their car to tell his mother. When they got home, his father, Dave Esrig, contacted Millburn High School, where the first perpetrator is known to be a student.
“I thought it made sense to reach out to an authority figure who could speak to the kid who did this; it made sense to contact the principal,” Dave Esrig told NJJN in a phone interview. He also contacted the Millburn Patch, which reported the story on Sept. 19. “As for the reporter, my thought was, as always with these incidents, it makes sense for the community to find out,” said Esrig. “As Louis Brandeis said, ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’”
Dr. William Miron, Millburn High School principal, said in a phone interview, “My initial reaction was very severe, and I wanted to do more than I ultimately could.”
Once the incident was reported to him, Miron was required by New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law to conduct an investigation. Miron said that within a few days, he was able to corroborate the victim’s story and identify the MHS students involved. However, because the victim is not a student in the district, the new anti-bullying law does not apply.
New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law took effect Sept. 1. Written in response to the apparent suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, it has been called the country’s toughest. It requires school staff to undergo training and includes provisions that students who harass, intimidate, or bully other students, on or off campus, can be suspended and/or expelled.
Schools may react to off-campus bullying only when it creates a hostile environment at school or significantly disrupts its orderly operation, according to the law. Because the victim in this case is not an MHS student or even in the district, Miron’s hands were tied. Although he called the students’ behavior “shocking” and “egregious,” he said, “There are limits to what we can do.”
Although he declined to describe exactly what action was taken, Miron said it involved the school’s vice principals. “The teens directly involved have gotten the message loud and clear. I’d like to think we are still educating them. We’ve been able to do some things informally; they don’t balance the severity of the actions, but I hope the students have learned something,” he said. “There’s no question they were there and things happened.”
Etzion Neuer, a champion of the anti-bullying law as NJ regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, commended the school and the principal for their handling of the situation.
While “no anti-bullying law will completely cover every aspect of bullying, this case is interesting because it exposes the gaps in the law,” said Neuer. He acknowledged being left “with a profoundly dissatisfied feeling that there ought to be consequences for the students’ behavior.”
Neuer’s recommendation is for the family to call the police, who keep a record of bias incidents, not just crimes. Doing so would also send a message to perpetrators. Sometimes, he said, “the appearance of law enforcement at home can be enough to put the fear of the law into people, to make them realize we take this very seriously.”
‘A moral issue’
The Patch story elicited a spirited debate from the community. Comments ranged from support for the family, to outrage over the incident, to a discussion over where free speech ends. Some readers wondered whether an uncorroborated incident ought to be reported as news at all, and a few comments questioned the veracity of the family’s account.
Esrig said he’s been mostly pleased with the response, not only on Patch but also from people in the community, including clergy and townspeople who have reached out to offer support.
“Someone even stopped me in Manhattan who’d seen the story to offer support,” he said.
As for those on Patch who said he had an “ax to grind” with the town, he denied that.
His wife, Rachel Plafker Esrig, wasn’t as unfazed. “This is what happened. If people aren’t willing to admit it did happen, they’re blind and it’s sad. They should be horrified,” she said.
Dave Esrig said he was never looking for a legal intervention, but rather an apology from the perpetrator.
“In my view, what the kid did was not illegal, and efforts to find a legal answer were misguided,” he said. “To me, anyway, doing that in downtown Millburn — he was within his rights as a citizen, but it was obnoxious. I don’t see this as a legal issue as much as a moral issue. For a person this age to shout anti-Semitic slurs to a 12-year-old boy in downtown Millburn is just outrageous.”
He added, “My sense also is that it is better to expose the behavior as that of one individual, not a whole community, and deal with it that way.”
As for Esrig’s son, he said the incident wouldn’t keep him from wearing his yarmulke, and he just wants an apology and for the whole incident “to fade away.”