Focus: School Safety

FOCUS: SCHOOL SAFETY

Capping the Heavy Price for Bullying

By MARY JO McGRATH, Attorney at Law
Reprinted from The School Administrator, April 2003

It’s every school administrator’s nightmare. The phone rings and on the other end is an angry parent threatening to sue because his child was injured in a bullying incident that took place at school.

Unfortunately today’s news reports are full of such incidents, and national statistics show most teachers and administrators have to deal with student-to-student bullying, taunting, ridicule or even sexual harassment and violence in the school setting.

Protecting your students from such treatment should be your primary concern, but that’s not all you have to worry about. Educators must increasingly contend with the legal liability incurred by such behaviors. Parents are holding school districts civilly responsible for investigating and intervening in incidents of bullying—and the courts are backing them up.

In times like this, you would be wise to ask yourself: Am I doing enough to prevent school bullying through education, intervention and investigation of incidents?

Many school authorities are not sure what they should do to both protect students and reduce the liability their school districts face if such behavior occurs. Understanding the legal definition of bullying is a good place to start.

Minimizing Risks
Bullying is not a simple instance of horseplay, or even teasing. Legally defined, bullying must demonstrate “willful, repeated acts” that are intended to harm a victim. Such intent to harm includes behaviors that may even represent the social norm—such as when “jocks” pick on “nerds” or when powerful school cliques target vulnerable students for ridicule, isolation or exclusion.

The bullying pattern includes any gesture or written, verbal or physical act where the perpetrator demonstrates an intent to harm by engaging in repeated conduct that physically harms a student or damages a student’s property; places a student in reasonable fear of physical harm or damage to the student’s property; or insults or demeans any student or group of students in such a way as to disrupt or interfere with the school’s mission or the education of any student. Such incidents can happen on or immediately adjacent to school grounds, at any school-sponsored activity, and on school-provided transportation or at any official school bus stop.

As a school official, you have a duty to protect students from harm and to decrease the chances of being held liable for injuries incurred during incidents of bullying at school. Your duty involves specific responsibilities, including a duty to train, a duty to remedy, a duty to monitor and a duty to investigate.

Good Intentions
Let’s consider how these responsibilities might be implemented in schools and school districts.

* A duty to train. Legislation now has been passed by many states stipulating that schools must authorize or require such programs as character education, violence prevention, peer mediation and conflict resolution. Programs like these fall under the broader concept of safe schools and show the intention of administrators to help schools decrease the potential for harm to students in the school context.

School systems, therefore, would be wise to initiate student, teacher and staff training in their districts—even if their states have not yet passed such legislation. This training should demonstrate clear steps for students and staff to take if they are bullied, receive a complaint or observe an incident of bullying.

Training school staff to recognize the sometimes-subtle nature of bullying behavior and to intervene when incidents occur is also crucial. A bullying incident lasts an average of only 38 seconds, according to researchers W. M. Craig and D.J. Pepler, who studied peer processes in bullying and victimization among Canadian youngsters. Given the enormous pressure to continue a lesson and ignore disruptive behavior once it stops, implementing such an intervention program takes both will and skill. School administrators will need to provide in-depth training, support and guidance if classroom teachers are to buy in to a campaign of 100 percent intervention.

* A duty to remedy. A school district should not only adopt a policy prohibiting bullying but ensure that it is distributed widely to administrators, faculty, staff, students and parents. An official policy would delineate appropriate and adequate remedial steps—with follow-through procedures—to stop bullying when it occurs. These anti-bullying procedures should be posted at every school site and spell out when and how to notify criminal authorities when a situation warrants it.

* A duty to monitor. To protect against liability, school districts should immediately correct inappropriate behavior, giving students continual supervision—even when schools are short-staffed. School personnel also should provide an environment where students feel safe and are free from retaliation when they report incidents of bullying.

* A duty to investigate. School administrators, counselors and key personnel must be trained in procedures that ensure that each complaint receives an immediate, appropriate, adequate and comprehensive response. If school districts are taken to court, their best protection is written documentation that school personnel took prompt, thorough action to investigate and remedy the behavior.

Clear Action
As recent national events have shown, unchecked cycles of bullying, intimidation, ridicule and harassment can lead both victim and perpetrator to undertake extreme acts of violence that may result in loss of life. Young victims who have been pushed to commit sometimes-horrific acts of violence have explained, almost universally, that the continual bullying at school by their peers drove them beyond their ability to cope.

The message is clear: As concerned educators, we must take immediate action to protect our students, staff and communities from further harm. We must pay attention or pay the price.

Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney, is president of McGrath Training Systems, 3905 State St., Suite 7211, Santa Barbara, CA 93105. E-mail: maryjo@mcgrathinc.com. She maintains a sample bullying policy at www.mcgrathinc.com.

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