No parent wants to get a call about their child getting into trouble at school. But with awareness about bullying on the rise after several recent extreme cases, it’s more important than ever for parents to be involved and proactive, experts say— advice that applies whether your child is the victim of bullying, or they’re accused of it.
All public schools in Missouri are required to have a policy covering bullying, says Katie Forster, an attorney at Lashly & Baer. In recent years, that requirement has expanded to include cyber-bullying, she adds. “It’s usually up to the district to take action,” she says. “It could be anything from in-school suspension leading up to expulsion, taking social activities away from the student, or the school having a conversation with the parents and student to make them aware of what is going on.”
Though discipline varies for each school district, attorney Mitch Stevens of Jensen Bartlett & Schelp says there are four basic levels of consequences. First, students who are involved in activities such as sports teams often have an honor code that applies to things like drinking and drugs. If the code is violated, the student can be suspended from that activity, he says. The second level of punishment would be a suspension by the principal, usually for up to 10 days. The student’s only appeal to such a suspension would be to the district superintendent.
The third level is a superintendent’s suspension, which can be anywhere from 11 to 180 days, Stevens adds. “Notice has to be given to parents and/or the student, and if the student is older than 18, they have a right to a hearing.” The most severe form of discipline is expulsion. “That must be done by the school board itself,” he says. “It’s basically a full-blown hearing where the student is given full due process.” The appeal to such a ruling would be to the circuit court.
If parents feel their child is the victim of bullying, the first thing they should do is to contact a teacher or the principal, says attorney David Bender of Rosenblum, Goldenhersh, Silverstein & Zafft. “The more everyone is aware, the better the situation,” he says. “You don’t want to have three or four incidents and have no one at the school be aware of them.” He notes that it is difficult for parents to take legal action against a public school, since they are protected by Sovereign Immunity under the Missouri Revised Statutes. The only exceptions to that immunity arise out of negligent acts by public employees during the operation of a motor vehicle, or regarding the condition of the public entity’s property. Because of these exemptions, it’s actually easier for parents to take legal action if incidents of bullying happened on a school bus, he says. “Public schools are very well protected and it’s very difficult to have a lawsuit proceed and be successful against the district for bullying.”
Early involvement is equally important for parents whose child is accused of bullying, says Margo Green, attorney at Green, Cordonnier & House. She recommends that the family hire an attorney immediately. “They should talk to the lawyer and be honest about his or her involvement in it.” In many cases, accusations of bullying can stay on a child’s record for years, she notes. “It all depends on the school district and how that district is going to handle it. Kids commit suicide due to bullying. Schools are making rules and regulations that will be adhered to, and they’re not going sweep it under the rug anymore.”