School Bullying Laws

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 What is “School Bullying”?

Bullying is generally defined as any intentional, aggressive behavior that is meant to threaten, frighten, or hurt another person. Specific to school bullying, this would include aggressive behavior that is meant to threaten, frighten, or hurt another student. Some specific examples of bullying in school would include:

  • Waiting for a classmate to enter into a certain area in order to intimidate them;
  • Using aggression or threats to steal money or belongings from another student;
  • One student forcing another student to do homework or provide test answers for them; and
  • Physically attacking another student.

It is important to note that school bullying can include various issues. This includes physical acts of violence, as well as mentally or emotionally abusive speech or written messages. It is common for bullying to occur from one student to another, but it is also common for several students to “gang up” on one selected victim.

Many adults incorrectly disregard bullying as a “natural” phase of adolescence that young people go through. However, bullying in schools has been taken more seriously lately, partially due to recent cases in which students have committed suicide after being bullied. Because of this, many states and local jurisdictions have begun enforcing anti-bullying statutes. School bullying laws are similar to workplace bullying laws.

All fifty states maintain some sort of anti-bullying statute, which can greatly differ from state to state. Some examples of school bullying laws at the federal level are:

  • The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”);
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; and
  • Both Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Who May Be Held Liable for School Bullying?

School officials, such as teachers and principals, have a responsibility to maintain a safe atmosphere for their students. If bullying occurs on school grounds, there are many different parties which may potentially be held liable, including:

  • The bullying student;
  • The bullying child’s parents, especially if the parents approved or encouraged the abusive conduct; and/or
  • The school itself, or school staff or officials, especially if they knew about the bullying but did nothing to stop or prevent it.

Generally speaking, it is the bullying student (or students) who may be held liable for cases of persistent bullying. This usually requires a school investigation into the incident or repeated incidents. Such an investigation may require testimony from other witnesses, such as fellow students, teachers, or yard attendants. School liability for student injuries is commonly difficult to prove, and can also involve lengthy investigations by school authorities, the police, and other persons.

In order for a school to be held responsible for a student’s injuries, the injured student must prove that it was the school’s failure to exercise reasonable care that caused the injury. In cases involving school bullying specifically, the bullied student must prove that it was the school’s failure to intervene and stop the bullying that caused the bullied student to be injured.

In terms of remedies for bullying cases in schools, a monetary damages award can only be issued in cases in which the student suffered what is considered to be actual harm or losses due to the bullying. An example of this would be verifiable physical injury. Theft is often an aspect of bullying, such as when the bully forcefully steals money or personal items from the student being bullied.

It is important to further understand school liability for student injuries. This is because if a student is injured on school property, one of the most important factors which determines the possibility and amount of recovery is whether the school is public or private. State and federal institutions are protected by a doctrine called sovereign immunity

What this means is that in most cases, a person cannot sue a government institution unless the state has passed laws which allow for such lawsuits. So, if the bullying occurred at a public school, it is highly unlikely that the bullied student would be able to file a lawsuit against the school.

What Is Cyber Bullying? Can Schools Be Held Liable for Cyber Bullying?

Cyberbullying is becoming more common among school age children. Cyberbullying refers to a person using technology to threaten, intimidate, harm, or harass another person. This generally occurs through interactions over cell phones, such as texting, photo sharing, and other apps. 

Cyberbullying also happens on social media platforms or other interactive Internet sites. This specific type of bullying behavior is usually repetitive and persistent, and is of course damaging to the person being bullied.

Some common examples of cyberbullying actions are:

  • Spreading rumors or lies;
  • Posting or sharing disturbing, inappropriate, or offensive pictures of someone else without their consent;
  • Threatening to hurt someone; and
  • Stalking.

A specific example of cyberbullying would be flooding a person’s social media with cruel remarks, intended to cause the person distress. Some states have held parents liable for their child’s cyberbullying. However, due to the relatively recent nature of cyberbullying, this is still a very unclear area of the law. 

It is important to note that cyberbullying can occur at any time, either at school or away from school. What this means is that even though students may be involved in cyberbullying against one another, it is difficult to hold a school liable for injuries or damages caused by cyberbullying. This is especially true for bullying that happens during off-school hours. The school generally has no control over the student’s conduct online; and, generally speaking, they do not currently owe the students any duty to regulate online interactions. 

Alternatively, it could be possible to hold a school or school district liable for school bullying if there is an especially serious situation at hand. This is especially true if the school or school officials knew about possible dangers, but failed to investigate or take action.

Regardless of who may be held liable, parents should talk to their kids about cyberbullying so they are aware of the serious effects it can cause. Bullying results in long-term psychological damage to the victim, or the victim may take their life due to the harassment. As such, bullying has several serious consequences that are not always readily and immediately apparent.

Can School Bullying Lead to Criminal Charges? Are There Any Legal Consequences for Bullying in Schools?

It is not uncommon for school bullying to escalate from words or threats to violence or physical dangers. In such cases, the bullying can actually lead to criminal charges and consequences. Some examples of situations in which bullying would lead to criminal charges include:

  • The bullied student has suffered severe bodily injuries because of bullying conduct, especially repeated conduct such as battery incidents repeated weekly;
  • Major property loss or damage, such as a student’s vehicle or home is severely damage in connection with bullying behavior; 
  • Situations involving harassment or stalking, especially cases that involve sexual harassment or sexual assault, as they are particularly dangerous and will generally lead to an in-depth criminal investigation; and/or
  • Assault or battery situations in which the bullied student was severely outnumbered, or they were assaulted or battered by a student much bigger than them in size.

Laws against bullying in schools may prescribe legal consequences for bullying, either criminal or civil. Criminal consequences can include fines, as well as possible time in a juvenile facility for especially serious cases.  Bullying commonly involves violations of criminal laws, such as theft or assault, which would lead to criminal consequences. Penalties will depend on several factors, but mainly the seriousness of the injuries or property damage involved.

The bully could face a civil lawsuit as well, especially if the victim was seriously injured or had property taken from them. As previously mentioned, some instances of bullying also involve parental liability.

As the parties involved in most bullying cases are minors, legal consequences may involve alternative options such as mandatory community service, counseling, or summer behavioral programs. More serious crimes can result in felony penalties, which would come with higher fines and longer sentences. An attorney for school bullying can help determine a defense for the defendant, or ensure that the plaintiff receives some sort of justice.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Representation in a School Bullying Lawsuit?

If you are involved in a school bullying lawsuit, you should consult with a local government lawyer immediately. An experienced and local government attorney will be best suited to understanding your state’s specific school and cyberbullying laws. 

An attorney can provide you legal assistance in investigating or filing a legal claim for school bullying, and can also help you determine which parties may be held liable. Finally, an attorney will be able to advise you regarding your legal rights and best course of action, as well as represent you in court as needed.

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