In today’s high-tech world, there are even more ways for kids to communicate—and harass—their classmates. Not only at school, but via text message or on social media, there's evidence that students are increasingly bullied by their peers. This physical, verbal and electronic harassment has led to troubling consequences—victims can wrestle with depression, fear and anxiety, even to the point of committing suicide. And communities are left asking: Who is liable?
Some statistics show that more than 10 percent of children are regularly bullied by classmates at school. Bullying is characterized as intimidation or harassment that causes a reasonable student to fear for his or her physical safety or property. In today’s schools, bullying can include physical actions; cyberbullying; verbal, electronic or written communication; and any threat of retaliation for reporting these instances. Under Missouri law’s anti-bullying policy, school districts are required to provide a safe and equal learning environment for all students. In turn, school employees are obligated to report any bullying they witness firsthand, and refer the aggressor to the institution’s consequences.
Chuck Billings of Bruntrager & Billings has dealt with an increasing number of student assault cases through the years. “It was dismissed as child’s play back in the day. Now, rightly so, parents, police and schools have taken this conduct more seriously to protect children and their educational environment.” If your child is being bullied, Billings says notifying the school’s administration is the first step. “They can’t address an issue that they don’t know about.” When an act of bullying occurs, rapid intervention of the school district is essential, he continues. “Bullying and youth behavior being what they are, it is a ticking powder keg ready to be ignited if it is allowed to fester.”
After the initial report from the bullied child, parent or teacher, the school is responsible for carrying out a response. Each school district has its own set of procedures and policies that must adhere to state law, and there may be a review board which is in charge of such disciplinary matters. If a student hurts a classmate at school, the district is not liable. But if the school knows about a dangerous condition and doesn't correct it, it can be liable, Billings notes. C. Curran Coulter II of The Coulter Law Firm agrees, saying schools are being sued more frequently for not adequately protecting students from bullies, particularly if the victim commits suicide.
There are two types of liability: criminal and civil, Coulter explains. Civil liability results in monetary liability, and criminal actions result in criminal liability. Typically, a parent cannot be held lawfully responsible for a child’s acts of bullying. However, parents can be liable if they are participating in the bullying, such as conspiring with the child against another student, Billings says. In the case of civil liability, parents may be found liable for negligence if they knew or should have known about the bullying, Coulter adds.
Local lawyers recommend speaking with an attorney to decide whether to bring a lawsuit against a school or another family for child bullying. “Unless you are likely to win, you may not want to sue,” Coulter says. “Lawsuits can be expensive and take a lot of time and effort. In some situations, courts may order the petitioner to pay the opposing side’s attorney’s fees or sanctions if the suit is deemed frivolous.”
The best course of action starts with prevention, such as joining the government’s anti-bullying campaign at stopbullying.gov, attorneys say. All parties benefit if they try to reduce bullying, Coulter adds. “No one wants their child bullied or to be potentially liable for their child’s actions.”
Signs a child is bullied
• Unexplainable injuries
• Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
• Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
• Changes in eating habits, such as suddenly skipping meals or binge eating
• Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
• Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
• Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
• Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
• Self-destructive behaviors, such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about suicide
Signs a child is a bully
• Get into physical or verbal fights
• Have friends who bully others
• Become increasingly aggressive
• Frequently are sent to the principal’s office or to detention
• Have unexplained extra money or new belongings
• Blame others for their problems
• Don’t accept responsibility for their actions
• Become competitive and worry about their reputation or popularity