Adults know that if other adults bully or harass them, they
have recourse to the police and to the civil courts. It is not so well
known that children also have recourse against harassment or
bullying by other children.
Kids will be kids, but if bullying gets out of hand and affects a child’s well being, then the parents must take action. Unfortunately, parents often don’t know what to do.
The almost immediate response of most parents is to complain to the school. The school means well, but it has other problems to worry about. Dealing with school authorities to control the actions of other children can be most frustrating. In this lawsuit-saturated culture, schools have become experts at paper-pushing and giving verbal assurances. Unfortunately, if it’s not in writing, then it probably isn’t worth anything.
One student was being continually harassed by other students, because he wore different clothing and tended not to fight back. His mother, who meant well, spoke to an Assistant Principal, who said, “There is nothing we can do. Let the boys just work it out.”
It worked out into a fight, with the student suspended, and more bad feeling in the school.
Of course, the Assistant Principal later denied that he said it, and there was nothing in writing and no videotape. He counted on this woman to be intimidated by the school. Instead, she called me.
In those situations, we deal directly with the Superintendent or the Board of Education, in writing. We also deal directly with the parents of the offending children. In extreme cases, we will seek police, civil court, and juvenile court action.
Therefore, if bullying becomes a problem, we can help. You do not have to “grin and bear it,” nor do you have to beg indifferent persons to take action. Further, having an experienced advocate on your side is far less frustrating than dealing solo with the authorities.
THE JAMES JONES SOLUTION
In 2010, James Jones became nationally famous for taking out his frustrations against inaction on school bullying.
Mr. Jones’ daughter has cerebral palsy. She was constantly bullied on the school bus. Other kids tormented her, even once putting a condom over her head. He complained, and nothing was done.
Mr. Jones, an ordinary citizen, was frustrated beyond belief. He was heartsick at seeing his daughter crying her eyes out at home.
One day, he entered the school bus with his daughter. He screamed at the kids and threatened anyone who ever bullied his daughter again. Of course, he did not mean to hurt any kid, and did not; he only wanted to put the fear of God in them.
On a TV show, Mr. Jones would have been a hero. In real life, he was arrested, pled guilty, had to pay a $1,000.00 fine, and do community service. He now has a criminal record. Whether or not his daughter is still being bullied, I do not know; but at least the school and the parents of the offending children got a wake-up call.
Several TV commentators were outraged. One went so far as to say that some child molesters get less of a sentence than he did. And still, no one knows what to do.
But now you do.
If your child is being bullied:
1. Send a complaint letter to the Principal. It must be in writing: signed, dated, and with detailed facts.
2. If you receive no meaningful response, call an attorney; right away.
3. Attorney actions might include:
a. Writing to the Superintendent, who is aware of lawsuit problems, and knows that you are serious;
b. Writing to the parents of the bullies;
c. Considering the police and Juvenile Court (delinquency) action;
e. Being present with you at school meetings, to watch out for administrator traps and meaningless verbal assurances.
When you meet with the lawyer, your child should be there also. The lawyer must have all the facts. If anything is left out, the school will pounce on it.
Also, do not conceal your child’s shortcomings. That will only delay matters. There are often two sides to every story.
The lawyer is not smarter than you. However, the lawyer knows the traps and tricks, and will not be swayed by body language, sympathetic statements, and verbal assurances by the school.
Lawyers do cost money, but they are a lot cheaper than years of frustration; or even worse if the problem is not solved.
THE SCRUGGS CASE
In one of the most notorious cases in Connecticut history, a middle school student, Daniel Scruggs, hanged himself as a result of relentless bullying in school. His mother complained that she had tried to get help for years and was stonewalled by the authorities. After Daniel’s death, there was an investigation – and the mother was arrested! The State charged that, bullying or not, Daniel’s problems were mainly caused by her own negligence. Although the mother had one of the top criminal lawyers in the State defending her, she was found guilty. Both DCF and the school system were embarrassed, but escaped responsibility.
A case like this has plenty of blame to go around, and I will not attempt to parcel out fault. But one thing is clear: had the mother gotten legal help the moment that she ran into a stone wall, Daniel might be alive today. A qualified Juvenile Court lawyer would have not only pressured the school, and the parents of the offending children, but also would have advised the mother on her own child care responsibilities and methods of getting counseling for her child. The lawyer would have attempted to counsel the child as well.
After Daniel committed suicide, it was too late. If the tragic death of this innocent child does not convince you to get help in dealing with the authorities, then, sad to say, nothing will.
The mother was sentenced to probation and community service. However, the case finally did have one decent turn for her. In August, 2006, the Connecticut Supreme Court unanimously reversed the mother's conviction. Among other things, the Court noted that DCF had closed its file in this matter, leading the mother to believe that the State itself believed that there was no immediate threat to Daniel's health.
In other words, in my opinion, DCF botched the case. When someone in authority realized that someone had to be held accountable for this child's death, DCF then attempted to shift the blame to the mother. Of course, many people, including the prosecutor, still believe that the mother was at fault; and this case had plenty of fault to go around.
In the most recent good news, Mrs. Scruggs filed a federal
court lawsuit against the Meriden school officials. The case
settled out of court. There was a confidentiality agreement, so
we have no way of knowing how much money Mrs. Scruggs received;
but you may be sure that it wasn’t enough. The school board was
happy to settle. It only wanted to be free from future
liability, and of course took no responsibility for its actions.
The State, of course, takes no responsibility and pays nothing.
The State apparently felt guilty enough to push an “anti-bullying law” through the State Legislature. This law, as you may suspect, creates even more paper trails to protect school administrators. Substantively, it accomplishes nothing.
To repeat, it is clear beyond argument that you need a lawyer when dealing with state officials.
Some people may find this hard to believe. After all, are not teachers, principals, and superintendents authority figures?
Yes, once they were. In today’s bureaucratic environment, however, many are reduced to being paper-pushers.
One example is that of the Board of Education of Fairfield, CT. In late 2008, the Board implemented a policy that if a child calls another child by a derogatory name twice, that child will be labeled as a “bully”. The record will follow the child to college. That warning is supposed to frighten kids into not bullying. The problem, of course, is that most bullies either do not care or do not understand. By the time they understand the warning, it may be too late. However, the warning does nothing for the bullied child. But it does allow the Board of Education to say that it “did something.”I am sympathetic to Boards of Education. And I am certainly not picking on Fairfield; other towns may be as bad or worse. However, their problems are not your problems. If your child is being bullied, paper pushers will not solve your child’s problem.
The problem goes back to 1976. President Carter, elected primarily due to President Ford’s pardon of President Nixon, was determined to reward the teachers’ unions for supporting him. He succeeded in 1980, by raising the federal Department of Education to cabinet-level status. The result was predictable. Less local and state control, more federal control, more rules, more lawyers, and more bureaucrats. And thus were education administrators reduced to paper-pushing, lawsuit-avoiding roles.
If you still trust paper-pushers to give you your rights, then I cannot help you. But hopefully, you will help yourself before a disaster erupts.
The bottom line is: If a bullying situation develops, try to work it out peacefully. If you can’t, don’t get upset; call us.
SANTORO BULLYING WARNING
Most people, of course, do not want to be confrontational. That is understandable; after all, everyone likes to be liked, and you may need a favor from the other person one day. So why call a lawyer if you have a school bullying problem?
A gentleman named Frank Santoro, Jr., had a son in the Hamden, CT public schools who was being bullied. He complained to the school, which allegedly did nothing. Of course, the school will have a different viewpoint; and after reading the above, you may draw your own conclusions.
Mr. Santoro, aware of so-called anti-bullying laws, then filed a lawsuit against the school system. After all, isn’t there a law requiring school boards to establish anti-bullying policies?
Despite being represented by one of the top civil lawyers in the State, Mr. Santoro’s case was thrown out of court in August, 2006. The technical reason: anti-bullying policies are “discretionary”, and parents have no “private right of action” to see that they are enforced.
The real reason: governmental immunity. If you, as a private citizen, violate the law, you can be charged. If a governmental entity violates the law, it is generally immune, although there are exceptions. As of today, bullying is not one of those exceptions. The Courts do not want to be inundated with cases from citizens irate at ineffective government; hence, governmental immunity thrives.
In other words, you have a right without a remedy. Not such a bargain.
The lesson is clear. Do not expect the anti-bullying “laws” to protect you, and if administrators refuse to protect you, do not expect them to change simply because you persist. In the Santoro case, the student allegedly doing the bullying was a black student, and the administrators were afraid of “creating a racial incident.”
If your child is being bullied, and if the school does nothing, CALL A LAWYER IMMEDIATELY.
The lawyer may be able to pressure the school board, its lawyers, and the parents of the offending children, more effectively than you can.
REMEMBER: Most bullies are cowards and will back down if you stand up to them.
In March, 2010, a Michigan federal court jury ordered a school district to pay $800,000.00 to a student who was repeatedly bullied, specifically finding that the school did not do enough to protect him from years of abuse.
The problem started with name-calling in middle school, and escalated into high school. It included: shoving the kid into lockers; sexual insults; defacing his locker and notebook; and being taunted in the locker room by a naked student rubbing himself against the kid. We may safely assume that there were even more vicious incidents.
The school, despite repeated complaints, did nothing. Fortunately, the parents got relief, as they were able to sue for sexual harassment under Title IX. The jury verdict held the school responsible. I wish I had been in the courtroom, to hear school officials explain how they had made notes of the incidents, but were unable to do anything.
The importance of this verdict is that it sends a message to schools. Our office will use this in all similar incidents in the future.
However, it is important that parents not get the wrong message. A lawsuit is not a goal, since it takes years, and can take even longer with appeals. The correct approach remains: contact an attorney to protect your child at the outset. Attorneys will not be intimidated by school administrative stalling, and know how to deal with stall-oriented expensive downtown School Board lawyers.
And, as you recall, failure to protect your kid can subject you yourself to DCF neglect petitions.
It is not worth the risk. If the school stalls even once, call a lawyer.
When you act like a victim, you’ll be treated like a victim.
Don’t do it. You have rights, and a lawyer will help you to secure those rights. The school will not.
Even the most
apathetic and denying parent may wake up if his or her kid is
arrested, or threatened with a lawsuit. Even the most
bureaucratic school may wake up if it knows that a lawyer may
have a credible lawsuit. And you will not get into trouble for
asserting your rights.