The Deadly Epidemic of School Bullying and its Legal Consequences
Verbal, emotional, and physical bullying of students can have horrific consequences. Last year, thousands of students committed suicide as the result of bullying, and it is said that almost 200,000 children stay home from school each day, out of fear of being bullied. Recent research indicates that almost 30% of all students in America are affected by bullying—with deep and long lasting consequences, including self-esteem and confidence issues, anxiety, and depression. The deterioration of the victim’s physical and psychological well-being often requires anti-anxiety and depression medications, and therapy.
Bullying at school typically involves punching, pushing, and other aggressive physical behavior, together with psychological bullying, in the form of name calling, verbal abuse, ostracism, or ridiculing of the victim’s sexual orientation. Typically, due to peer and social pressures, most students who witness bullying are reluctant to come forth—either for fear that they may be the next victim, or because they really don’t care enough to take a stand. And, sadly, bullying is not limited to offenses by one student against another; it can also involve the abuse of power and control by teachers.
In recent years, a new and invidious form of bullying has arisen: cyber-bullying. This phenomenon, which takes place largely on social networks, enables one bully to reach thousands of anonymous others, multiplying the horror in a way that is enormously frightening way for a young victim.
As someone who has been a school bullying and sexual abuse lawyer for over three decades—and who also happens to be married to a psychologist and teacher—I am well aware that unmonitored bullying leads to long-term psychological problems, and sometimes suicide. I am also aware that school officials may be held legally responsible for damages, if they knowingly allow a dangerous condition to exist which can lead to the foreseeable injury or death of a victim.
Many times each year, I receive phone calls from distressed parents or relatives of bullied school victims who have put school officials, teachers, and counselors on alert about a problematic situation, but to no avail. Too often, despite parental complaints, school officials and teachers fail to take appropriate actions—until it is too late. Similarly, the legal system rarely gets involved with school bullying until after a serious situation has occurred. I believe that a more proactive stance is required by educators and lawmakers, and I salute private attorneys who are willing to march forward on behalf of those who are bullied.
Forty-seven states have passed legislation requiring schools to address the bullying problem. Accordingly, teachers, principals, and school boards are being required to address the issue—and they can be held professionally and legally responsible if they are aware of a dangerous situation and fail to address it.
Pennsylvania law requires that each school adopt a policy on bullying, or amend an existing policy, in accordance with the School Entities Code of Conduct, under 22 Pa. Code §12.3 (c). The policy must set forth disciplinary consequences for bullying, and provide for prevention, intervention, and educational programs.
The law defines bullying as an intentional written, verbal, electronic, or physical act, or series of acts, that is directed at another student or students, and occurs in a school setting. It is severe, persistent, and pervasive, and has the effect of interfering with a student’s education, creating a threatening environment, and substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.
If your child or teen is the victim of bullying or abuse at school, you should be aware that this is not one of the normal rites of passages that many claim it is. Indeed, bullying may have serious civil and legal consequences for the offenders and the educational institutions that harbor them.
Jeffrey M. Reiff is committed to protecting victims of bullying, and to working on new solutions to the challenges faced by victims and those who serve them.