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People's Law Guide

 

Bullying, Bashing & Harassing

05/26/12

BULLYING, BASHING & HARASSING
Making It Home Safely a Big Concern for Many Students

Many elementary, middle school and high school pupils have their minds on concerns more immediate than grades, homework assignments and upcoming exams. In public schools, and private ones, too, lots of students have set their primary goals to make it through the school day without being punched, bullied, harassed or tormented.

Between 15 to 25 percent of all school students are frequently bullied or harassed, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One survey conducted in a high school in Florida's Sarasota County revealed 27 percent of the students were kicked, slapped, shoved, punched or pushed by another student in a prior month. Though many, if not most of these incidents arose unexpectedly or spontaneously and were unavoidable, a significant number were foreseeable and preventable. That's why in Florida and throughout the U.S., parents and legal guardians of school kids are hiring attorneys when those in charge of schools won't or can't protect the students they oversee. Parents are retaining lawyers for pre-lawsuit intervention and if that fails, to file lawsuits, while alleging that administrators and teachers are failing to provide reasonable protection from physical and psychological abuse being dished out in classes, hallways, locker rooms, cafeterias, libraries and during rides on school buses.

Jeffrey Johnston of Cape Coral, FL, while 15 years old and in eighth grade, hanged himself at the end of the 2005 school year. For a two year duration, Johnston had been tormented by another pupil in his public school, even though the teen made repeated pleas for school officials to come to intervene, according to Debbie Johnston, his mother. After Johnston committed suicide, students came forward stating the youth had been targeted with relentless bullying and the student who harassed him through emails and on a website, told news reporters he felt no remorse. Appreciating that students are better served while focusing on academics instead of worrying about their safety, Florida responded to this tragedy in 2008 by putting into effect the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, an anti-bullying law. Now, public schools in Florida which fail to promptly and adequately respond to complaints of bullying and harassment can lose state funding.

What arguably makes Johnston's death unique, is that this youth was not physically or intellectually disabled, but was of typical weight and height, was considered handsome, earned straight A's, had been on the honor roll, performed volunteer work in his school's office, and started a student group devoted to developing computer games. That Johnston found being bullied so difficult to cope with certainly reveals how "vulnerable" students "standing out" in more obvious ways fare when mocked or humiliated.

According to a report issued in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Justice, students most likely to be victimized are "socially incompetent," have low self-esteem, are smaller, weaker and lack friends who can assist them respond to bullying. Students who are bullied one or more times weekly are prone to suffer from depression, social dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia and more frequently than their peers have contemplated suicide, the government report added.

Children with visible scars, birthmarks, disabilities such as cerebral palsy and those with non-seen disorders such as Asperger's Syndrome (a form of Autism) or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are all "significantly more likely than their peers to be the victims of bullying behavior," notes Disaboom.com, a website started by a paraplegic physician committed to forming a "community" among disabled persons. The students most vulnerable to mean-spirited name calling, the website states, are those with "visible" disabilities and overweight females.

For students with learning disabilities, the humiliation associated with being picked-on is often compounded by school staff-induced frustration, according to Marlene Snyder, Ph.D., an associate professor at Clemson University widely known for her research on students and young adults with Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. This disturbing observation is confirmed by CHAD, an organization advocating on behalf of children and adults with ADHD. When students with ADHD react to bullies, they - and not those bullying them - tend to be punished, according to CHAD's research. Also, nearly a third of ADHD kids have been "egged on" by students to act in ways which get them into trouble, the organization reports.

Sexual harassment, a phrase most adults associate with hostile activities occurring in workplaces, is also something many students experience. Just over a third of boys and girls 11 through 18 years of age reported being sexually harassed in their schools and these students find the emotional toll more significant than being physically bullied, according to a 2008 article published in Sex Roles Journal. Conducted by two professors, one from the University of Michigan (Dearborn) and the other from the University of Southern Maine, the study concluded school administrators are more attentive to general bullying problems than student on student sexual harassment.

Gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils reported the highest rates of sexual harassment, these same researchers found. A study published in 2009 by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, concurred with those findings. Middle school students who are gay, or are perceived to be gay, are particularly susceptible to abuse. Of middle school students identifying themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, 39% said they were victimized by some form of physical assault, almost double the percentage found in surveys taken of older students attending high school, GLSEN reported. Of course, that's not to say gay students or those perceived as gay at grade levels above or below middle school years have carefree educational experiences. Surprisingly, the Washington (State) Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, reported pre-adolescent boys who in early grades were not involved in "overt heterosexual boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, or who did not participate in traditional sports" also were frequent targets of homophobic harassment.

Of course, that the range of students consistently badgered being is so broad isn't a legitimate excuse as to why some school administrators find it more convenient to ignore bullying and harassment within their schools or prefer to make minimal efforts to address safety concerns. Lawsuits have alleged these have been among the reasons why school officials failed to take action to curb abusive situations, along with concerns that the reputations of the schools they work in - and even their own careers - might be harmed if they concede these dangers. Regardless of why physical or psychological abuse exists within schools, jurors have indicated their displeasure when harm is inflicted upon students. In Tampa, in 2007, a jury awarded $4 million to a 12-year-old who suffered permanent nerve damage, paralysis and two breaks in his arm despite his family's pleas that faculty at his private school protect him from on-going bullying. In Miami-Dade County, jurors awarded $1.5 million to a girl who was sexually molested when held down by fellow private school students as a teacher left that classroom unattended. In Michigan, jurors awarded $800,000 in 2010 to a public school student who alleged throughout his junior and senior high school years being pushed into lockers, subjected to verbal sexual insults, having sexual remarks written on his locker and books and being rubbed against by naked students when changing clothes for gym class.

Realizing that jurors have shown indignation when perceiving principals, administrators and teachers had been "brushing problems under the rug" or taking "window dressing" type approaches in response to discrimination, harassment or bullying, school officials typically settle cases rather than risk trial verdicts which could be even more costly. Parents of a Kansas high school student accepted a $440,000 settlement in a lawsuit alleging a four year duration of homophobic slurs and anti-gay bullying caused their son to become an eleventh grade drop-out. Also in Kansas, two girls from the same family received $45,000 when claiming school staff failed to stop a male student from directing sexual advances toward each of them. The Board of Education in Stamford, CT elected to settle for $37,500 a lawsuit brought by a high school student who claimed administrators didn't take reasonable efforts to stop other students from targeting her with racist voicemail messages. She contended school officials didn't want to intercede with the son of that city's mayor being one of the students tormenting her.

A number of parents of bullied and harassed students are now hiring attorneys to intervene before catastrophic serious harm comes to their children. Privately retained lawyers are developing detailed reports to document the frequency and severity of abuse inflicted on their children, explain the psychological associated with hopelessness and by a loss of interest in school, and to articulate the necessity of taking prompt action to halt on-going abusive situations. Sometimes, these attorneys hire educational experts to recommend specific practices which, if implemented, they contend will provide reasonable safety to the children of parents who hire their services. Of course, in correspondence, reports and when meeting with school administrators, these attorneys note the costs of protecting abused and harassed students almost always pales in comparison to the dollars schools spend toward satisfying the hefty settlements or jury verdicts which follow occurrences of serious injuries and deaths.

These days, mothers and fathers realize that attending PTA meetings, making phone calls to principals and politely requesting administrators "look into" their concerns aren't always enough to push school officials into stopping abuse, bullying or sexual harassment. Parents have learned that sometimes even the people in charge of their kids' schools need to be taught important lessons.

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