Every parent has an innate desire to protect their child, to shield them from harm, and to ensure they learn in a safe and nurturing school environment. But what happens if your child’s safety is not protected at school? What happens when the dangers of bullying go unaddressed and the protective shield is shattered? What legal responsibilities do schools have to protect students from the harm caused by bullying?
While the link between bullying and adolescent suicide is complex, research has shown that victims of bullying are more likely to experience mental health issues that can lead to suicidal ideation. The Washington Post recently found “nearly 200 student suicides since 2016 that were linked to school bullying in news accounts or court records.” The largest percentage were between the ages of 11 and 14, but nearly 10 percent were children between the ages of 7 and 10, The Washington Post reported.
The article identified a growing trend: Parents whose children end their lives to escape intense bullying are filing lawsuits against school districts for failing to protect children or, in some cases, report the extent a child is being bullied to their parents. While 50 states have enacted laws to combat bullying, the protections are not necessarily robust, The Washington Post reported, adding: “The internet and smartphones have given rise to types of bullying that many earlier generations never knew. Now cruelty flows easily from social media to school classrooms and back again, especially in schools that allow cellphone use during the day.”
Bullying Can Take Many Forms
Bullying is a multifaceted issue, presenting itself in various forms, each with its unique brand of harm.
- Verbal bullying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” has never actually been true. Taunting and name-calling can easily chip away at a child’s self-esteem, causing stress and suffering.
- Coordinated cyberbullying: Technology has made bullying more insidious than ever before. Using social media, bullies can coordinate massive attacks on an individual – either through a platform or with text messages. This kind of bullying can make escape nearly impossible.
- Physical bullying: The physical violations of personal boundaries that most people define as “real” bullying place children in daily danger. Children in schools across the country are victimized by physical bullying on a daily basis.
In worst-case scenarios, bullying can rise to sexual assault and severe physical harm. Even if it doesn’t reach that level, all bullying has profound psychological impacts. Victims often experience feelings of guilt, shame, and fear and may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. The psychological trauma of bullying is often compounded when the assault goes unreported, as the victim may feel isolated and unsupported.
Schools Have a Duty of Care to Their Students
Schools have a legal obligation to maintain a safe environment and to reasonably protect students from harm. If a school is aware of ongoing bullying, sexual assault, or physical assault and fails to take appropriate action, it may be held liable for any harm that befalls the student as a result.
In the wake of a tragic outcome, like a suicide, parents and faculty may ask themselves hard questions:
- Could the school have done more to prevent bullying and encourage reporting of harassing behaviors?
- Was the school aware that the bullying was going on, and did it do anything to address the bullying?
- Should the school have noticed the signs of abuse?
- How long was the abuse happening without anyone noticing?
The bullied student’s family and the school community may share in the pain of loss. However, that does not mean that the school is not responsible for its inaction or inattention. Often, families seek to hold the school accountable if only to stop others from going through a similar experience.
Damages and justice
No amount of money can make up for the emotional toll that suicide takes on a family. However, the law allows for various categories of damages, which may include:
- Medical and funeral expenses
- Pain and suffering
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of future earning potential
Holding Schools Accountable for Failing to Address Bullying
Seeking justice for a child who was bullied is an emotionally grueling journey. However, the legal process is one way to ensure the safety of our children and to hold accountable the schools and institutions that fail the children in their care. At Sanford Heisler Sharp, we can help families navigate the legal challenges and seek justice.