A New Jersey board of education has agreed to pay $500,000 to seven Hispanic children who were forced to eat lunch on the floor for a week as their schoolmates ate at tables nearby. According to court documents, the fifth-grade students were punished because one of their classmates spilled water and were threatened with more severe punishment if they told anyone what was happening to them.
The Camden Board of Education agreed to the settlement but did not admit any guilt. The board had already settled a case involving the children’s teacher, Jose Rivera, who was fired after he went to the board to express his concerns over the incident.
The unusual punishment was meted out by school administrator Theresa Brown in February of 2008 at Liberty Park’s Charles Sumner Elementary School. The nature of the punishment, along with school district personnel’s behavior afterwards added to the tension between the area’s Hispanic and black communities and led to claims of bias against Hispanic students in the local schools.
The suit stated that a student in the class was trying to replace a water cooler jug for a substitute teacher when a spill occurred. In response, Brown administered the punishment to the entire class, including some students who were not at school when the spill occurred.
When parents learned of Brown’s actions, they attempted to meet with principal Alex DeFlavis, who refused to see them. Rivera learned of the incident from a secretary when he returned to school. As word of the incident spread, enraged members of the Hispanic community, including some then-current school board members, demanded Brown be fired. In spite of community outrage, Sara Davis, who was the school board president at the time, dismissed the incident, calling it isolated.
The New Jersey Department of Education disagreed with Davis. It ruled that the punishment had occurred and that it was not an isolated incident. The department ordered the school to submit a plan of action for preventing future incidents. However, it did not agree that the action was racist.
Following the announcement of the settlement, Davis changed her stance on the matter, issuing a public apology. Brown, however, is still employed as a vice principal by the district.