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Students’ Anti-Semitic Conduct Towards Teacher Can Create Hostile Work Environment
Jacob Rabinowitz was hired to teach math at St. Joseph’s Regional High School during the 2017-2018 school year. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark (Archdiocese) is a Catholic organization that is responsible for the administration of the School. Rabinowitz is a Jewish individual, who, at the start of the school year, began to experience issues in the classroom. For example, Rabinowitz’s classroom had a swastika carved into the chalkboard, swastikas were on desks and a bookshelf, and anti-Semitic statements were written on desks. Rabinowitz could not identify any students who drew the graffiti in the classroom.
Students also threw coins at Rabinowitz while his back was turned to the class, and at least one student was under the impression that the coin-throwing occurred because of Rabinowitz’s Jewish identity. Students blew kisses at Rabinowitz, told him they loved him, and called him “cute.” One student in Rabinowitz’s class stood on a desk and mimicked the murder of a Jewish person from the film Schindler’s List. Although Rabinowitz imposed discipline in certain instances and communicated with parents and school administration regarding student misbehavior, he did not mention any anti-Semitic incidents.
When Rabinowitz’s classroom was observed, administrators provided feedback that students were not engaged and seemed confused. The administrators and other teachers did not observe any anti-Semitic graffiti or conduct.
In February 2018, the School administration decided to transfer one of Rabinowitz’s classes to another teacher. One week later, an administrator sat in and provided criticisms of Rabinowitz’s teaching performance. In response, Rabinowitz reported the anti-Semitic graffiti and conduct to the administration. Rabinowitz sent two letters, one of which described the swastikas, the German slogan, the coin-throwing, and the reenactment of the scene from Schindler’s List. The letter also attached photos of the swastikas, explained that the behavior had been ongoing since the start of the school year, and requested the School take appropriate action. Rabinowitz said he feared speaking up because did not want to signal himself as a troublemaker or draw attention to the incidents.
In response, the principal noted that Rabinowitz only brought these concerns forward after Rabinowitz received the observation report and that the School could not fix problems that it was unaware even existed. The principal encouraged them to bring future reports up as they arose and suggested that the letter was a direct reflection of Rabinowitz’s inability to manage a classroom setting. Soon after, the School notified Rabinowitz that it would not renew his contract due to a variety of issues with classroom management that directly impacted the instruction of students. The principal did not interview any students, discussed with other administrators that nothing could be done because the students could not be identified, and contacted the superintendent for high schools at the Archdiocese, but the organization did not provide any advice.
In April 2018, Rabinowitz reported to the vice principal that a student discussed “getting a cake” for that Friday, and that during the discussion, it was revealed that Friday was Adolf Hitler’s birthday. The vice principal commenced an investigation, interviewing eight students. Some students described witnessing anti-Semitic conduct, including the Nazi salute, but the vice principal did not request further descriptions of what was perceived or who was responsible. When the investigation concluded, the School notified Rabinowitz that he was encouraged to come forward with any additional concerns and confirmed that the swastika on his chalkboard was removed. No additional anti-Semitic conduct occurred through the end of the school year. However, a student found swastikas in at least five out of seven of his classrooms, even after Rabinowitz left the school, and students found swastikas in bathrooms, refrigerators, hallways, and a table in another classroom.
Rabinowitz sued the School and Archdiocese under Title VII and New Jersey law for religious discrimination, unlawful retaliation, and a hostile work environment. The School and Archdiocese moved for summary judgment for the hostile work environment claim, arguing that the discrimination that Rabinowitz suffered was not severe or pervasive, rather it was episodic, and that a reasonable Jewish person would not have been detrimentally affected by the discrimination.
The Court disagreed with the School and Archdiocese and concluded that summary judgment was not appropriate because there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether a hostile work environment existed. The Court reasoned that a jury could find that swastikas, graffiti, coin throwing, the Schindler’s List reenactment, and Hitler’s birthday incident amounted to severe or persistent discrimination. At least one student associated the coin throwing with Rabinowitz’s Jewish identity and the swastika remained in the classroom despite numerous opportunities to address it.
The Court also reasoned that a jury could find that these acts would have detrimentally affected a reasonable Jewish person. Even if the source of the misconduct was students, there is still the potential of a hostile work environment claim.
The Court dismissed the motion for summary judgment and allowed the case to proceed.
Rabinowitz v. St. Joseph’s Regional High School (D.N.J., May 23, 2023) 2023 WL 3597633 (slip opinion).
Note: On May 25, 2023, The Education Department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter about the nationwide rise in reports of anti-Semitic harassment, including in schools. The letter discussed schools’ legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide all students, including Jewish students, a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. Although Title VI only applies to schools that receive federal funding, the Dear Colleague Letter may help private schools recalibrate how they respond to claims of anti-Semitism. The Dear Colleague Letter can be found here.