A federal suit accusing Mountain Lakes High School of discriminating against white students has been dismissed after the plaintiff declined a court order to identify himself.
While this was a rather odd ending to a case involving one of Morris County’s toniest enclaves, the larger battle over what gets taught in public schools shows no sign of ebbing.
As the plaintiff in the Mountain Lakes case said through his lawyer after a judge dismissed the matter on Tuesday, “We appreciate the widespread interest in this case. Many parents across the country are asking valid questions about educational programming in their schools – specifically content that addresses political issues outside of approved curriculum.”
Those “valid questions” have led to fierce and at times rancorous debates at school board meetings across New Jersey, and sometimes litigation, over books, mental health counseling and how gay students are treated. Groups on both sides of the philosophical divide have recruited candidates to run in this year’s local school board elections.
The plaintiff also expressed disappointment in the outcome and contended that “the unapproved material in question crossed the legal threshold of discrimination by assigning the responsibility of racism to a protected class of children under our state and federal laws.” And as his lawyer, Ronald Berutti, noted, the right to appeal remains.
Lawyers for the school district have not commented publicly on the suit.
The genesis of this legal battle predated the ongoing contretemps over books and the like.
It goes back to the May, 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In the immediate aftermath of that incident, the K-12 district launched a program that, broadly speaking, aimed to teach students about racism and white privilege. Mountain Lakes is a mostly white community.
The plaintiff objected to the suggestion racism was systemic and said he tried to discuss the matter with school officials – unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
He filed suit last June on behalf of his son, a high school student at the time, who like his plaintiff father, was identified only by initials.
And that became the controlling dynamic of the case.
Lawyers for the district argued that as time passed, the “student” had graduated and was no longer a minor, and thus, did not qualify for the protection of anonymity. And nor did his father.
Ultimately, the courts agreed and in April, Judge John Michael Vasquez gave the plaintiff 30 days to “amend” the complaint and identify himself.
With that 30-day period long passed, and with no amended complaint filed, the judge dismissed the suit.
The plaintiff in his statement laments that the case was not decided on the merits of the argument, namely that “discrimination is defined as the unfair or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people on the grounds of race, gender, age and other protected classes.” And he argues that “occasional or selective application” of such can not be based on “prevailing social issues or political leanings of teachers, administrators or school boards.”
If the case got that far, it did seem as if the plaintiff would have had a steep hill to confront, namely that discussing racism in the United States – past and present – is in itself, racist.
That battle, alas, will be for another time.
As for the plaintiff’s refusal to identify himself, a decision that metaphorically sank his ship, that remains a puzzlement.
Mountain Lakes is a small town, and as such, many people who care about this case likely know who the plaintiff is. His lawyer even acknowledged that in a past filing in which he complained that the plaintiff’s family was being harassed. Surely, you can only harass people if you know who they are.