Get Help With a School Bullying Lawsuit
The definition of bullying varies from state to state, but the term generally refers to physical, mental or verbal acts by a student to intimidate, harass or otherwise harm another student. It’s an all-too-common phenomenon, and it can have devastating consequences. At times, parents of bullied children find themselves needing to pursue bullying lawsuits to hold parents of bullies and school districts liable for severe injuries, suicide attempts or even the death of their bullied child. If your family is in this unfortunate situation, the compassionate attorneys at Parker Waichman LLP can help.
Effects of School Bullying: One Girl’s Story
The crushing effects of bullying at school can be seen in the story of Mallory Grossman, a 12-year-old New Jersey girl who died by suicide in 2017. Mallory was tormented by classmates for months, including harassment through texts and social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram. Her tormentors repeatedly bombarded her cell phone with denigrating comments, such as telling her she was a loser with no friends. Her bullies even asked, “Why don’t you kill yourself?”
Her parents said that they repeatedly reported the bullying to school officials, but the parents did not see adequate steps taken to stop the abuse. Mallory’s mom and dad even pleaded with the parents of one of the tormentors, who seemed to dismiss their concerns. The day after the meeting between the parents, Mallory took her own life, proving that her parents’ fears were justified.
Since the incident, the parents have filed suit against the school district and parents of the harassing students. Tragic stories like these have become far too common as the bullying and cyberbullying crisis has played out among schoolchildren and teens across the U.S.
Legal Basis for Bullying Claims
While nothing can undo all of the damage done by bullying, seeking compensation through legal action can hold school districts accountable for failing to put a stop to it. Premises liability law provides a legal basis for these claims because property owners have a legal duty to keep non-trespassers safe on the premises. Because children are the primary users of school premises, school districts have a heightened duty of care to create a safe environment. When they fail to carry out this duty, seeking a lawyer for school bullying claims can help you bring them to justice. The experienced attorneys at our law firm represent victims of all forms of bullying, whether it’s physical, verbal or social, and we provide free case evaluations to help you determine your legal rights.
Forms of Harassment and Bullying Against Schoolchildren
While bullying is not a new practice, harassing acts that might have been tolerated in prior times are no longer acceptable. Bullying often occurs when a child is harassed and educators or parents fail to come to the victim’s aid or to take control and prevent future abuse or mistreatment. Although a single perpetrator might be responsible for the offending behavior, the harsh, repetitive type of bullying carried out by multiple tormentors frequently leads to serious consequences that might include suicide.
Although there is no legal definition of bullying under federal law, mental health professionals typically define the act as “physical or verbal abuse repeated over time and involving a power imbalance.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has settled on a similar definition of school bullying: “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance” that is repetitive or poses the possibility of repetition. Bullying activity does not have to occur during school hours or on school premises, but these details can affect the legal rights of the victim.
The reach and pervasive nature of bullies have changed with the evolution of cyberbullying. Advances in electronic communications have given rise to the use of the Internet or cell phones to send or post harmful content. Now, a perpetrator can inflict abuse 24/7 through email, text messaging, and an array of social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Tumblr, and YouTube. The ability to incessantly torment a victim through multiple forums makes social media a particularly damaging weapon in a bully’s hands.
Other aspects of cyberbullying also make this form of harassment particularly insidious. The derogatory comments, images or other content posted online can be permanent or at least extremely difficult to remove. Social media sites also allow a coalition of bullies to work together, exponentially increasing the harm inflicted.
Although hazing often is associated with fraternities and sororities on college campuses, this form of harassing behavior also occurs among members of sports teams and clubs for middle-school and high-school students. Hazing activities often are dismissed as harmless pranks, but these rituals can cause significant harm. When the wrongful acts occur as part of school-sanctioned activities or on school grounds, the school district might be liable, if school officials knew or should have known of the hazing and failed to take appropriate measures.
Teasing refers to conduct or comments designed to make fun of or provoke the target. While teasing can become bullying, several factors differentiate bullying from day-to-day teasing. Teasing can rise to the level of bullying behavior if it includes these factors:
- Power imbalance between the parties (either social hierarchy or physical strength)
- Aggressive tone
- Repetition of actions aimed at threatening or hurting the victim
- Refusal to stop when the victim gets upset
When teasing or conflict between schoolchildren or teenagers meets these criteria, the conduct might constitute bullying.
Sovereign Immunity and Lawsuits Against School Districts
If parents want to file a lawsuit against a school district for failing to ensure a safe learning environment for their child, they must often overcome obstacles posed by the sovereign immunity of government entities. “Sovereign immunity” refers to the common-law right of government entities to be shielded from lawsuits prompted by the negligence of their employees. Federal and state laws will often waive this right to immunity, but a plaintiff seeking damages for personal injury or wrongful death may need to comply with shorter filing deadlines and other special requirements.
Under most of these laws, often referred to as tort claims acts, formal written notice must be served on the public entity, usually the school district, prior to filing a lawsuit. The time limit will vary depending on the law of the particular jurisdiction, but the window to provide notice can be as short as three months. The notice must contain specific information and might need to be served on a specific party to be effective, so it’s important to seek advice from a skilled attorney if you want to preserve your right to a legal claim. Another reason to seek prompt legal advice is that calculation of this deadline can be complicated depending on the situation. Failure to comply with this timing requirement will permanently waive a party’s right to pursue a claim against the government in most situations.
What Must Be Proven to Pursue a Claim Against a School District in a Bullying Lawsuit?
The requirements for success in pursuing a lawsuit will depend on the impact on the victim, the nature of the bullying conduct, the identity of the victim, and the party against whom the lawsuit is filed.
Federal and State Discrimination and Harassment Laws
While bullying lawsuits can be brought under federal and state discrimination and sexual harassment laws, the right to pursue a legal claim under these statutes is determined by whether the victim is a member of a protected class. Examples of federal laws that might be used to pursue damages for bullying include:
- Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 if the bullying is based on the plaintiff’s disability
- Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bar discrimination based on sex
- Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination on the basis of color, national origin or race
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on the basis of a disability
When a student is subject to a hostile environment because of bullying, the school district might be in violation of these civil rights statutes if the school ignores the behavior or fails to take adequate remedial action to stop the harassment. Although none of these statutes specifically address harassment based on sexual orientation, this type of bullying liability might be pursued if the wrongful conduct is based on the student’s non-compliance with traditional gender stereotypes.
Bullying victims also can sometimes pursue a claim under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 for violation of their right to substantive due process under the due process clause or under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The U.S. Constitution also extends protection to victims of bullying based on religion. As a general rule, these federal statutes will only provide a basis for a bullying lawsuit if the offending conduct occurred on school grounds, on a school bus or at a school-sponsored event. Since these laws generally apply to entities receiving federal funding, claims also typically must be brought against school districts rather than individual school officials.
State Liability Laws and Common Law
States often have their own discrimination and harassment laws that might be drafted to include a broader number of protected classes. These state and local laws might provide another legal basis for a personal injury victim or family of a wrongful death victim to pursue a lawsuit for damages.
Common-law tort can provide another avenue for pursuing a lawsuit against a school district for bullying. “Common law” refers to law based on court precedent as opposed to the enactment of legislation. There are situations where filing a lawsuit based on state common law provides an advantage, such as cases where the bullying victim is not the member of a specific legally protected class. The legal standard to prevail in a state common-law case also often will be less stringent than under federal civil rights laws. While the standard under federal civil rights statutes for holding a school district liable might be “deliberate indifference,” merely proving negligence might be sufficient under state law. Some potential common-law causes of action include:
- Negligent infliction of emotional distress
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
- Failure to supervise. Note that while showing negligent conduct can be sufficient to prevail in some jurisdictions, the failure to supervise must be willful and wanton in other jurisdictions.
Procedural and Substantive Hurdles to Pursuing a Bullying Lawsuit
Whether you’re pursuing a lawsuit for bullying-related conduct in state or federal court, representation by a personal injury or wrongful death attorney with experience suing school districts is important because these cases can be quite complex. Although lawsuits to hold school districts accountable for peer-on-peer bullying have been successful, a positive outcome requires effective navigation of procedural and substantive hurdles such as:
Aside from the notice and procedural requirements of tort claims acts when suing a public entity, there’s another important type of notice: School districts will only be liable for the bullying behavior of other students if they were given notice of it. Schools are held accountable for harm based on conduct that school officials “know or should know” is occurring. The liability of the school would be based on failing to adequately intervene to stop or prevent bullying. If notice is not provided to allow the school to take action, the district will use their lack of awareness of the inappropriate conduct as a defense.
Knowledge of State Anti-Bullying Laws and School Policies
Because of the intricacies of suing a public entity, the relevant laws and school policies must be thoroughly researched before pursuing a lawsuit. For instance, defining what constitutes bullying is relegated to local school districts in some states. The procedures for alerting school authorities of the inappropriate conduct also should be articulated within these school policies. A thorough familiarity with the laws in your jurisdiction and school policies will be necessary to determine what constitutes impermissible conduct and the procedures the school was required to follow to remedy the situation.
Selection of the Proper Forum and Law
A claim in federal court under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) might be a successful strategy for a student tormented socially and mentally because she has had a leg amputated. However, a failure to supervise claim in state court might be a more promising option for a person who is not a member of an identified group under federal or state civil rights laws. If a student is bullied because of their sexuality, taking action under a state civil rights law that includes sexual orientation as a protected class might be a superior option to a federal lawsuit under Title IX.
Lack of Physical Harm
Bullying lawsuits are more likely to succeed when they are based on physical rather than social or verbal harassment. Further, some states will not permit a tort recovery unless a physical injury can be proven. A pattern of verbal or social harassment over a prolonged period can justify a recovery by strengthening a claim of physical harm. Evidence to meet this requirement might be shown through depression, declining grades, anxiety, and other forms of psychological harm.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) Regarding Bullying Lawsuits
Parents’ first priority must be to determine whether their child is being harassed and to stop the conduct. Notifying school officials and the offending child’s parents might be sufficient to get the bullying to cease. If the school does not take adequate steps and comply with its own policies regarding bullying, the school district might be liable. However, you need to provide notice to ensure that school officials know or should know about the bullying.
Can I Simply Call My Child’s Teacher if My Child Is Being Bullied?
When you notify the school that your child is a victim of bullying, you should do so in writing. Although alerting your child’s teacher might be prudent, the school will have specific procedures for handling bullying claims. You should make sure you understand the school’s policies for responding to and investigating bullying complaints. If you need to file a lawsuit against the school, you will have to provide notice of your claim to the school first, and the policies of the school will indicate who you must notify and specify the information that must be included. It is important that you understand this procedure and comply with the requirements to avoid forfeiting your right to a school bullying lawsuit against the district.
How Do I File a Complaint Against a School District?
If you have an issue with a school and district officials haven’t addressed any of your concerns, then your next step is to file a complaint with school officials in the area where the school is located.
Can I Pursue a Lawsuit Against the Parents of the Child Who Is Bullying My Child?
Parents can be liable if their child’s bullying causes harm to another child, but you might be able to resolve the situation simply by making the other parent aware of the situation. If the parents dismiss your concerns and fail to intervene, this will strengthen your position if you must pursue a lawsuit related to harm caused by the other child.
Can You File a Lawsuit Against a School?
Yes, you can file a lawsuit against a school, as long as you have a reasonable cause, such as negligence, emotional distress or illegal practices. However, each of these claims has elements that need to be proven in order to give you the best possible chance of a positive outcome.
How Do You Sue a School System/District?
You can file a civil lawsuit against a school system/district for negligence or discrimination if you’ve gathered enough evidence to file a complaint. An attorney can help walk you through the process of suing a school district for bullying, harassment or negligence.
Do I Need an Attorney to Sue the School if My Concerns About My Child Being Bullied Are Not Handled Adequately?
It’s not strictly required, but it’s highly advisable to retain a lawyer for a child bullying lawsuit. The procedural complications and substantive law involved in pursuing a claim for personal injury or wrongful death based on bullying behavior can be complex and confusing, and an experienced school law attorney who handles bullying claims will be able to guide you through these obstacles. After all, you can be sure that the school district will have their attorneys involved at the first opportunity.
Can You Sue a School for Not Protecting Your Child?
You can sue a school for negligence if you have proof that you or your child sought help from a teacher, principal or other school official and your child’s needs still went unaddressed.
Can You Sue a School District for Emotional Distress?
You can file a civil claim against a school for emotional distress. In order to strengthen your claim of emotional distress, the first step is to talk to a licensed doctor or psychologist for a proper diagnosis.
Can You Sue Civilly for Harassment?
Victims of harassment can file a civil lawsuit. Each state has a different definition of what constitutes harassment, so it’s best to talk to a lawyer who can help you understand if your case falls under the state’s statutes.
Can You Sue Someone for Being Mean?
You can file a civil lawsuit against somebody who harassed you or someone who defamed you with libel or slander. But to win a libel lawsuit, you must provide proof that the statement was false, made with malice, and harmed you in some way.
Can You Sue Someone for Hurting You?
You can sue someone for verbally hurting you if it was outrageous and slanderous, but it is a difficult process. If somebody assaults you, you can sue for damages if you sustained a serious injury or suffered psychological trauma.
Can a Child Defend Themselves at School?
Most schools have a zero-tolerance policy in place that punishes any infraction of the rules, so even if your child is not the one who started the altercation, they are still at risk of getting punished by school officials.
Can I Sue a Teacher for Hitting My Child?
If your child has been abused or harassed by a teacher, the first step is to contact school authorities; if the situation is not addressed, contact a bullying lawyer to discuss all of the options for your case.
What Constitutes Unlawful Bullying Under State and Federal Law?
There is no uniformly adopted definition of bullying under state or federal statutes. While many mental health professionals and the HHS have similar definitions of bullying, the term is not defined by federal law. States may differ in their precise definition of the term, and some state anti-bullying laws authorize local school boards to define the term.
How Many States Have Anti-Cyberbullying Laws?
All 50 states have an anti-bullying law of some sort in place, but not every state’s laws specifically mention cyberbullying.
Why Choose Parker Waichman to Handle Your Bullying Claim?
When bullying victims seek to hold their tormentors, school authorities, and parents who fail to intervene accountable for the harm they inflict, many legal requirements and practical obstacles must be navigated. An experienced bullying lawyer at Parker Waichman can skillfully advocate for parents and students across the country who have been harmed by all forms of bullying conduct. Our national law firm is firmly committed to delivering the exemplary legal services that our clients expect and deserve.
Our personal injury and wrongful death attorneys have received many accolades for tenaciously pursuing the maximum compensation for our clients, including:
- Recognition by Martindale Hubbell with their highest “AV Preeminent” peer-review rating
- A near-perfect rating of 9.8 by AVVO, which evaluates all U.S. law firms
- Listing in Best Lawyers, based on extensive peer review
- Lawdragon’s top rating, “5 Dragons”
Speak to a School
Bullying Attorney Today
The experienced attorneys at Parker Waichman are committed to protecting children from bullying and helping them and their families to get compensation for the damage it can cause. We hold school districts and parents who turn a blind eye to such conduct accountable for their failure to act. Call us today at 1-800-YOUR-LAWYER (1-800-968-7529) or fill out our online form to schedule a free case evaluation and learn more about your legal rights.
Page updated by Jerry Parker