More schools are adopting zero-tolerance policies for physical violence and bullying. This includes fights, harassment, weapons on campus, and sexual violence. While such policies look good on paper, they often lead to unjust and unfair punishments for students. When expulsion and incarceration are at stake, you need aggressive representation. Bullying can indeed have life-long implications for both the accused and the victim, so it's important to work with an attorney who understands both sides of the issue and can craft a strategy to anticipate how the other party will think.
If your son or daughter has been accused of bullying, turn to the Lento Law Firm. We work on behalf of both students and teachers who have been named in bullying cases. Put the full force of our firm to work for you – your child's future may depend on it.
Defining School Bullying
Bullying is defined as any intentional, aggressive behavior intended to hurt, frighten, or threaten another person. In schools, this might include any aggressive behavior intended to harm a fellow student. Examples might include:
- Waiting for a classmate to enter a certain area to intimidate them
- Using threats to steal money or belongings from another student
- Forcing another student to complete assignments or share test answers
- Physically attacking another student
Bullying comes in a number of forms. It can encompass physical violence, emotionally abusive speech, or harassing notes or written messages. It's common for bullying to occur between one student and another, but it's also possible for a group of students to “gang up” on a targeted victim.
For as long as there have been schools, there have been arguments, tussles, and fights between students. Bullying in schools has only recently been taken more seriously, after a wave of suicides occurred. Because of this, state and local jurisdictions have worked to enforce anti-bullying statutes. Many school bullying laws are modeled after workplace bullying statutes.
Bullying vs. Harassment
The term bullying refers to physical, verbal, and other acts intended to intimidate, harass, or cause harm to another person. This is a general definition – each state has their own precise definition. For instance, in Illinois, bullying is defined as any severe or pervasive act that could cause harm or interference with a student's academics or extracurricular activities.
Harassment, on the other hand, has a specific meaning within federal anti-discrimination laws. When bullying is committed on the basis of someone's perceived gender, race, national origin, or some other protected class, it's considered a violation of federal education discrimination law. This distinction often determines whether or not a school is liable in instances of bullying.
Lawsuits for acts of bullying that are not considered harassment – typical in cases where the victim is not a member of a protected class – face an uphill battle. Many jurisdictions acknowledge that school officials have a duty to provide students with a safe environment for learning. Plaintiffs may be able to prove that school officials were negligent in their custodial duty to students, but it's often difficult to do so. This becomes even more challenging in school districts that do not recognize a school's custodial duties to students.
While bullying is often thought of as verbal or physical harassment, social-emotional bullying is also quite common. Also known as relational bullying, this form of harassment may involve social exclusion, the spreading of rumors, or the revelation of embarrassing information. This kind of bullying is more common among girls – social exclusivity may not appear harmful on the surface, but the damage can be long-lasting.
Anti-bullying policies often fail to encompass this type of social ostracization. Parents and teachers owe it to children to teach them about all types of bullying, and how to avoid hurting the feelings of their classmates. Many popular, well-liked students fall into the trap of relational bullying simply because it's what all their friends are doing. By addressing the issue with your child, you can help prevent such inadvertent bullying.
Misunderstandings and interpersonal squabbles are misclassified as bullying all the time. The reality is that social gain is often at the root of these conflicts. Kids who try to be nice to one person may inadvertently be leaving out someone else. The unintended consequences of such behavior can be significant, with students quick to cite bullying as the source of their emotional anguish. It's up to educators and families to help children learn to be inclusive and to intervene when they see someone being ostracized.
Persistent, Pervasive Behavior
In some states, repeated acts or a pattern of behavior is required for a defendant to be found guilty of harassment. When the activity involves physical contact or the threat of violence, however, harassment statutes typically require just one incident. For instance, Hawaii's harassment statute requires multiple instances of repeated phone calls in order for a violation of the law to occur. The same statute requires just one occurrence if the action or language is likely to cause a violent response, or cause the victim to believe that the other person intends to physically harm them.
School Responsibility in Bullying Prevention
School officials have a duty to prevent bullying whenever possible. Children cannot possibly learn right from wrong without the help of teachers, administrators, and other school leaders. It's up to these leaders to intervene when they suspect or are made aware of bullying or harassing behaviors. Too often, these professionals turn a blind eye to conflicts between students. The behavior may escalate before anyone intervenes. When plaintiffs are able to prove that school officials were negligent in their custodial duty to the victim, it's considered a violation of the student's constitutional rights.
Schools have a vested interest in preventing and stopping bullying when they see it. After all, research shows the devastating impact bullying can have on a person's life. Bullying can impact school attendance and performance. By improving school culture and working to educate students on the importance of social-emotional balance, students will feel more empowered and safe. By creating an environment that's both physically and emotionally safe for all students, schools promote a space that's more conducive to learning.
Liability for Bullying
The Supreme Court has weighed in on bullying multiple times. In 1999, they ruled that when school officials are indifferent to known acts of student harassment, they can be held liable. Several criteria must be met: the student must be a member of a protected class (based on their gender, race, disability, etc.), harassment must be based on the protected class, the harassment must be severe, pervasive, and offensive, and at least one school official must have had actual knowledge of the harassment. When a school is indifferent to harassment, they can indeed be held liable for the resulting damages.
In some cases, the parent of a minor child who bullies another student may be held liable for their actions. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the parents of a minor found guilty of injuring another minor may be held financially responsible for the damages associated with the injury. Parents can even be found negligent if they knew their child was bullying others but failed to intervene.
The Push for Reasonable Consequences
Bullying has become something of a buzzword over the last decade, but the reality is that unkindness does not equate to bullying. After an alleged bullying incident, it's important to ensure that whatever punishment handed down by school administrators is indeed appropriate given the circumstances. Overly harsh or inconsistent punishment will not help the situation; in many cases, it may make things worse.
When considering the potential consequences, think about your child's age and the reasons behind the alleged bullying behaviors. Schools may try to come down hard on students accused of bullying, especially when safety is a concern. As a parent, it's important to advocate for the best interests of your child. If you have concerns that your child is being falsely or unfairly accused of bullying – or you believe the school is overly harsh with its penalties – you may want to consult with a lawyer about the situation.
If Your Child is Accused of Bullying
Most schools will attempt to mediate and resolve bullying accusations without intervention from the police or court system. During initial investigations, school administrators, guidance counselors, and social workers may attempt to interview your child about the nature of the conflict. If the accusations and charges are serious, a parent should be present for questioning. These conversations sometimes involve the School Resource Officer and may even take on the appearance of an interrogation. Anything your child says can and will be used against them.
As soon as you're made aware that your child is being investigated for bullying behaviors, you should determine whether the allegations are serious enough to warrant legal representation. One way to do this is to review the school's official code of conduct. See whether the accusations, if true, could result in the suspension or expulsion of your child. It could be extremely detrimental for your child's future if they provide statements that could be used against them in a formal disciplinary proceeding. In almost every instance, your child is entitled to an attorney or parent present. It's important to teach kids that if they are ever feeling pressured or uncomfortable at school, they should ask to speak to their parents.
Mistakes to Avoid
When your child has been accused of bullying, it can be tempting to leap into action. From a parent's perspective, the situation may seem like it can be reasonably resolved with a talk between the students involved. While mediation can be a useful tool in some cases, jumping to this resolution may be premature. Instead, speak with school administrators about the accusations. By sharing your child's side of the story privately, you and the principal can work together to find a reasonable path to resolution.
Too often, parents skip this step and contact the family of the alleged victim directly. This tactic should be avoided at all costs. Without a neutral third party to mediate the conversation, tension can escalate and potentially even exacerbate the relationship between the students involved. Should you feel the need to communicate with the other child's parents, do so via the school and never through private channels. Work to de-escalate the situation rather than add tension to an already fraught relationship.
If initial attempts at resolution have failed, you may want to seek legal representation. Even if no charges have been filed, a lawyer can help your family navigate the bullying allegations and find a peaceful solution that ensures everyone is happy. While you might like to think of yourself as your child's first and only defender, a professional attorney can give you and your son or daughter the power to put bullying accusations to rest forever.
Do You Need a Lawyer for Representation in School Bullying Disciplinary Proceedings?
If your child has been accused of bullying, their future may hang in the balance. Such accusations can stain an otherwise flawless permanent record. Attorney Joseph D. Lento is often asked to intervene on behalf of students nationwide accused of bullying in order to negotiate a resolution with little to no impact on their permanent record. Getting into college is hard enough without a scarlet letter on your applications. To have to check the “yes” box when asked if your child has ever been subject to discipline can set your child back tremendously.
Make no mistake: if your child is facing any type of disciplinary hearing, their academic and professional future may be on the line. Don't risk their future by entering such proceedings without the guidance of an experienced student discipline defense attorney.
Everyone deserves a second chance – especially children and teens. The Lento Law Firm excels at minimizing consequences and finding second chances for our clients. If you're concerned about the way bullying accusations might jeopardize your child's future, contact the Lento Law Firm today.