Despite comprehensive legislation intended to eliminate harassment, intimidation and bullying in schools, students nationwide continue to report being bullied. In a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in 2014, nearly 20% of high school students in the U.S. report being bullied at school within the past year.  Almost 15% reported being bullied online. These statistics are likely a low estimate of the extent of student harassment as other studies show that only 36% of students reported bullying. Children with disabilities were 2 - 3 times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers and up to 60% of students with Autism and Asperger’s Disorder report being bullied by classmates. Similar rates were reported by overweight youngsters. Most at risk were students who identify or were perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sexuality. Almost 90% of LGBT students were bullied based upon their sexual orientation or gender expression.

In 2012, the Jessica Logan Law amended Ohio’s anti-bullying statute to prohibit on-line harassing, intimidating and bullying conduct by use of a cell phone, computer or other electronic communication device. Jessica was a Cincinnati teenager who committed suicide after she “sexted” a picture of herself to her boyfriend. The picture went “viral” at school and led to near daily harassment from classmates. This treatment by peers caused severe depression, made Jessica fear going to school and led to her skipping classes. In a federal lawsuit, the parent claimed the school knew of the cyber-bullying but did not do enough to address the harassment. The case settled before a trial for $220,000 including $66,000 in fees for the parent’s attorney.

A public school will not be legally liable unless the evidence demonstrates it was deliberately indifferent to the harassment. What can your district do to avoid legal claims aimed at recovering money damages for bullying and cyber-bullying?

  • Schools should strictly follow the requirements of the Jessica Logan Law, HB 116, which include annual age-appropriate instruction to all students on harassment and bullying and a discussion of the consequences for violation of board policies; written information sent each year to all parents/guardians on  the board’s anti-bullying policy and disciplinary penalties for those who do not comply; and annual staff training as part of child abuse prevention and intervention.
  • Board policies must provide a strategy for protecting the alleged victim from new or additional bullying, including a means by which a person can report an incident anonymously.
  • Treat reports of bullying seriously and conduct a thorough investigation with documentation of interviews and all steps taken  to remedy the complaint.
  • Equip administrators and teachers with effective tools to recognize bullying, including “exclusion” bullying, and how best to intervene.
  • Provide a program that supports students acting as “upstanders” – who help victims of bullying.
  • The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law is hosting an Anti-Bullying Summit on April 25, 2015, presented by the law firm

Siegel, Agins & Gilman. The Summit is designed as a unique program, to teach participants about their rights and responsibilities related to bullying of school age students. The program will address the legal issues pertaining to bullying on the basis of race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or no reason at all. School districts and their staff will learn what their responsibilities and liabilities are, how to avoid liability, and what steps they can take to protect students and avoid a lawsuit.  Roetzel & Andress is helping to sponsor this event. For more information, contact any of R & A’s school law attorneys.