October is National Bullying Prevention Month. This is a nationwide campaign held every October to promote awareness of bullying in schools and how to prevent it. Far from harmless schoolyard fun, bullying often has long-lasting and devastating effects on its victims. Bullied children are more likely to suffer physical and mental health problems. And while Alabama and other states have made some strides in recent years to strengthen anti-bullying laws, it remains difficult to hold schools legally accountable when they fail to protect students from bullying and personal injury.
Bullying can refer to a wide range of offensive behaviors exhibited in the school environment. In the broadest sense, any aggressive behavior which involves a real or perceived imbalance of power is bullying. This could be an older student repeatedly picking on a younger student, a male student making inappropriate sexual comments to a female student, deliberately excluding a student from a social group in order to control or humiliate them, and even spreading malicious rumors to harm someone’s popularity. It is important to note that bullying does not require any overt physical act or violence. Nor does bullying refer to isolated incidents; it is a deliberate and persistent pattern of abuse.
In an effort to help curb bullying and to discover further information on how to stop bullying, the Alabama legislature adopted the Student Harassment Prevention Act, which prohibits any act of “harassment, intimidation, violence, or threats of violence” directed by one student against another. This covers not only acts that occur on school property, but on a school bus or at any “school-sponsored function,” such as a field trip. It is also illegal for anyone to retaliate or threaten retaliation against a student who complains about bullying to school authorities.
Not all bullying takes place in person or during school hours. Social media has led to increasing problems with “cyberbullying.” This can take the form of threatening emails or text messages, harassing posts on social networks like Twitter or Facebook, and even embarrassing images posted on YouTube or Instagram. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying can take place at any time or hour, subjecting its victims to a much larger—indeed, worldwide—audience. Cyberbullying can also be difficult to trace, as it is possible to post threatening or harassing content to many social networks anonymously.
Bullying is a widespread problem throughout Alabama and the country as a whole. According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 22 percent of students—almost one in four—are bullied at some point during the school year. Other studies cited by PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center found over one-third of children are subject to “bias-based” bullying, that is they are harassed due to the racial or ethnic background. And teenagers are especially prone to bullying based on their sexual orientation (or perceived orientation). A 2011 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network found 82 percent of self-identified LGBT students experienced some level of harassment in school.
And although traditional bullying remains more prevalent than cyberbullying, it is still a significant problem. The Cyberbullying Research Center estimates about 25 percent of middle- and high school students “have been cyberbullied at some point in their lifetimes,” about the same rate as in-person bullying. The Center said the most common forms of cyberbullying included “mean or hurtful comments” and “rumors spread online.” Female students were also significantly more likely to be victims of cyberbullying than male students.
These studies also indicate most students do not report bullying to teachers or school administrators. Only 36 percent of children ever report bullying, according to one report cited by PACER. That said, even if school officials are not aware of the problem, intervention by peers often helps stop bullying. School-sponsored anti-bullying programs can also help decrease reports of harassment by up to 25 percent.
In some cases, however, unchecked bullying has tragic consequences. In May 2010, a 15-year-old girl committed suicide in Chilton County, Alabama, saying in a note she could no longer take the repeated bullying she suffered at the hands of her classmates. According to court records, students persistently teased her about her weight and the way she walked due to a medical condition. The girl’s parents later sued the school district, arguing it should be held legally liable for failing to stop the other students from bullying their daughter.
The lawsuit did not rely on any Alabama law, but rather the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. The parents argued the school’s inaction amounted to illegal discrimination against their disabled child. Unfortunately, a judge did not see it that way. He dismissed the case last year, citing a lack of evidence the school district had “actual knowledge of the possibility of disability harassment.”
Despite the outcome in that case, federal civil rights law may still offer some protection against children who are bullied based on their disability, as well as their sex, race, color, national origin, or religion. In October 2014, the U.S. Department of Education has warned schools that failure to proactively address and prevent bullying, particularly against disabled students, can result in the loss of federal funding. Alabama law also requires local school districts to adopt their own anti-bullying policy. A Model Anti-Harassment Policy policy prepared by the Alabama Board of Education spells out a process for receiving and handling bullying complaints.
Holding schools accountable for bullying remains tricky, however, given civil rights law requires proof a school district deliberately ignored evidence of bullying against members of a protected class. Nor can Alabama residents rely on more traditional avenues of legal accountability like personal injury lawsuits. For one thing, public schools and their employees typically enjoy sovereign immunity from such lawsuits. Beyond that, negligence requires a chain of causation—that is, proof a school district’s failure to stop bullying directly caused a victim’s physical injuries. And even if Alabama schools fail to enforce their legislatively mandated anti-harassment policies, state law does not create a private cause of action for parents to seek damages on behalf of their children.
If your child has suffered from bullying, either at school or elsewhere, don’t hesitate to contact an experienced Alabama personal injury lawyer for assistance at (205) 933-1500. The legal professionals at Belt, Bruner, & Barnett P.C. are prepared to aggressively advocate on your behalf to ensure your rights are protected. With offices in Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, and Montgomery, our attorneys will travel to any location across the state of Alabama.
Please contact us for a consultation on your case.