School Bullying, Intimidation, & Harassment
In the past few weeks, I have received an unusually large number of emails from parents concerned about their child who is being bullied and sexually harassed in school. I get many questions. One parent asked if there are laws against school bullying and harassment in New Jersey (yes). Another parent asked me if it contacting a lawyer is jumping the gun (no). Still another asked how a lawyer can help resolve the situation (see below).
School bullying, intimidation, and harassment can cause serious harm. Children who have suffered from repeated acts of bullying and harassment become afraid to go to school. In rare cases, students like Ryan Halligan and Phoebe Prince commit suicide because they could no longer withstand the emotional and physical abuse that the bullies had inflicted upon them. In extremely rare cases, bullies will use dangerous weapons; such was the case in the February 2008 fatal shooting of Larry Fobes King.
First things first: No child should be bullied, intimidated, or harassed. Fortunately, most states, including New Jersey, have anti-school bullying laws. (To see which states have anti-bullying laws, see this website.) While there are no federal laws that specifically target school bullying, some attorneys have been successful in utilizing Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to address bullying, intimidation, and harassment. Depending on the facts of the case, some attorneys have also been successful in applying state-specific anti-discrimination laws as well.
Second, never feel that contacting an attorney early is too rash. Too often, people think of attorneys as the go-to professionals when the situation has escalated to an extremely bad situation. Instead, one should think of attorneys like medical doctors: treat the problem early before it gets worse. To prevent a bad situation from escalating into a worse situation, contact an attorney who can help resolve the bullying and harassment issues. If you don’t have an attorney and don’t know of one, now is the time to look for one and establish a relationship. (Two good starting points are The Yellow Pages for Children with Disabilities and Justia.) Even if you end up not retaining an attorney for a bullying issue, at least you have communicated with an attorney who can help you with other legal matters, such as special education matters, in the future. Thus, if you liked the attorney that you communicated with, you know who to turn the next time there is a possible legal issue.
Third, some states require that schools implement an anti-bullying policy (see New Jersey’s model policy). Furthermore, schools may be required to distribute this policy to parents. If your child’s school has a website, New Jersey law requires that the school post the anti-bullying policy on its website. The anti-bullying policy is always a great starting point. If you can’t find the policy on the school’s website, call the office and have them send you a copy in the mail or via email.
Fourth, document everything. I cannot stress this enough. Document when the incident took place, what happened, who was involved, and where it occurred. For clarity, be sure to write down the What, Who, Where, and When, as well as the How. If you know Why the incident occured, or if your child has a theory, write it down.
Fifth, any time you communicate with school personnel by telephone, follow up the conversation in writing. Write clearly, concisely, and politely. Watch your tone. The purpose of the letter is to reinforce the idea that the bullying/harassment issue is something that needs to be addressed, not forgotten. When you write your letter, do your best to put your emotions aside. Look at the situation objectively. Describe what has happened and how this has affected your child’s self-esteem, social interactions, and academic success.
When all else fails, an attorney can take action on your behalf. How an attorney handles the issue will depend on a number of factors. If the situation is recent, a few letters may be all that are needed. (A letter or three from an attorney can be quite effective.) If the situation has been is pervasive and has been going on for a long period of time, and the parent has sufficient funds to litigate the matter, an attorney can file a lawsuit.Other, less expensive alternatives such as mediation, may help. There may be many roads to consider, and you need to discuss these issues openly with your attorney.
Bullying, intimidation, and harassment in schools are serious issues. Bloggers like Moms Against Bullies recognize how badly children can suffer verbal and physical abuse at the hands of their peers. Attorneys like Jen Laviano, special education law websites like Wrightslaw, and anti-bullying websites like Stop Bullying Now! recognize the necessity of addressing the issue as early as possible, before a bad situation becomes a worse situation. Students, parents, teachers, and school personnel must learn from the Ryan Halligan, Phoebe Prince, and Larry Fobes King tragedies.
Remember, when you help stop school bullying on behalf of your child, everyone in your child’s school will benefit.