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Preventing Bullying-Related Lawsuits and Tragedies

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When bullying incidents go unaddressed, anguished parents' growing response is to pursue litigation. By Rick Phillips, M.Ed. Executive Director, Community Matters.

Parents Turning to Litigation

“Those kids picked on me again.” What do parents do when they hear these or similar words from their child? Beyond the visceral reaction of wanting to protect their child, the angst of many parents drives them to try to find ways to get help.

Many parents turn to the schools to resolve the conflicts or at least implement safeguards to minimize or prevent the bullying. For the most part, schools want to intervene effectively, but often are reluctant or not sure how to provide safe school environments for all students.

However, when the reported incidents of bullying go unheeded and the targeted children and anguished parents see no progress being made by schools to curtail the problems, the growing response is to pursue litigation. Recently, a court in Michigan ruled that the Hudson Area School District did not do enough to stop a student from bullying another. The court awarded the bullied student $800,000 in damages. Essentially, the federal court ruled that schools can be held responsible for what students do, if there is a pattern of harassment, or if they don’t do enough to provide a safe environment.

Schools Liable for Financial Damages

In Lynn, Massachusetts, another set of parents are suing the city for $35 million, claiming it failed to protect him from a school bully who allegedly shoved him down a staircase, leaving him wheelchair-bound. Doug Sheff, one of the family’s attorneys, said, “Hopefully, schools will see there is not only a moral obligation, but a financial one, to address bullying when it’s brought to their
attention. Click for full story.

Also gaining a foothold in court are cyberbullying cases in which children who have been bullied online are bringing litigation against the perpetrators. In Southern California, the 2nd District Court of Appeals recently ruled that threats, posted on a teen’s Web site, are not protected free speech. The teen set up his Web site to promote his interests in movies and music. Schoolmates, including
some who thought that the boy was gay, left messages that threatened to pound his head in with an ice pick and to rip out his heart and feed it to him. Click for full story.

And, tragically, in Georgia, the parents of a special needs student who allegedly hung himself because he could no longer tolerate being bullied at school have filed a federal lawsuit against their son’s principal and school district. Click for full story.

Unfortunately, lawsuits will not result in any real “winners”. The pain of the targeted children and their parents cannot be fully mitigated by courts finding in their favor. Any monetary damages awarded will be locked in ongoing appeals that will surface more charges, counter-charges and probably years of painful conflict.

Positive Alternatives to Improve School Climate

For schools already strapped for resources by extreme budget cuts, the cost of litigation drains their already stressed coffers. It would appear that those lawyers’ and court fees could have been better spent if school administrators had focused more on improving the schools’ climates. In safer school climates, students feel emotionally and physically safe, experience belonging and are surrounded by adults they can
trust. As a result, students’ behaviors, attendance and grades improve. At the same time, incidents of violence and mistreatment as well as administrative time spent on disciplining students’ decreases.

Research based school climate improvement efforts such as Community Matters’ Safe School Ambassadors Program are being successfully implemented by school districts across the country. In urban, rural and suburban schools, the Safe School Ambassadors Program is effectively waking up the courage of young people. It equips 4th-12th grade student leaders with the skills to speak up and intervene on behalf of their peers. Their actions decrease bullying related incidents that too often lead to tragedies and high cost litigation.

Learn more about the Safe School Ambassadors program:

http://www.community-matters.org/safe-school-ambassadors/