How the Courts Deal with Bullying in Schools

By Diamantes, Thomas | Journal of Instructional Psychology, December 2010 | Go to article overview
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How the Courts Deal with Bullying in Schools


Diamantes, Thomas, Journal of Instructional Psychology


School officials have a difficult time dealing with cases of bullying. Often, it is one student's word against another. Also, many victims of bullying are reluctant to report instances for fear of retribution. As in sexual harassment cases, school officials need to be seen doing something about the problem. Courts view indifference to these instances as a form of negligence and will side with students and parents who feel the schools are ignoring the problem. To avoid appearing indifferent, schools need written policies covering bullying as well as sexual harassment and to be seen quickly taking action upon receiving the complaint.

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Many states have enacted legislation prohibiting bullying as well as cyberbullying. Illinois ,Washington, Oregon, Minnesota and New Jersey are among the states that enacted anti-bulling laws in 2007 (Deskbook Encyclopedia of American School Law, 2009).

A discussion follows of recent court cases where parents have sued school districts claiming indifference or outfight failure by the district to appropriately respond to reported bullying.

A Connecticut student was bullied by a classmate. His family sued the district claiming that school employees knew of widespread harassment and bullying by classmates but were indifferent to it. The complaint included claims under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA. The family also alleged that their student's due process rights and equal protection rights were violated. The district court ruled for the school and on appeal, the court found that the failure of the school to respond to the harassment while unfortunate did not result in school liability. A key factor was that the student could not show that he was treated any differently because of his size or his ADHD status. The court ruled that the IDEA does not provide for monetary damage awards (Smith v. Guilford Board of Education, 2007).

A Minnesota student complained to his parents that he was threatened by others waiting to get him on his way home from school. This was reported to the school principal who involved the school resource officer (a policeman from the local police department.) It was considered an off-campus incident and no further action was taken.

Eventually, the student took his own life. The family sued the school district for negligence arguing that the suicide was a foreseeable consequence of the bullying that the district had a duty to prevent. The court rejected the family's claims and upon appeal the court explained that while Minnesota schools had a duty to protect students, they are not liable for sudden, unanticipated misconduct.

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