Bullying can cause serious physical and psychological harm to children in American schools. This behavior tends to peak in middle school and reportedly affects girls more often than boys. Bullying may occur both in person and online, and it may be perpetrated by individuals or groups. In addition to general changes in the normal behavior or personality of a child, signs that bullying may be affecting a child include:
Unexplained injuries or damage to personal belongings
Declining academic performance
Struggles with sleeping, focusing, or working
Avoiding school activities or activities with certain people from school
Anxiety and related physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach problems
Emotional and social withdrawal
Changes in hygiene or eating habits
Uncharacteristically aggressive behaviors
Evidence of self-harm
Parents concerned that their child is experiencing bullying should promptly contact teachers or school authorities. They may want to schedule an in-person meeting to explain the problem. This shows that they are taking it seriously and encourages the school to take it seriously as well. Parents also may want to share their concerns with other parents, who may join them in urging the school to address the issue.
Legal Claims Based on Bullying in Schools
Schools must take reasonable measures to protect the safety of the children who have been entrusted to them. If a school ignores complaints or tolerates bullying, parents may be able to file a lawsuit against the school. They would need to show that the school’s actions (or failure to act) resulted in their child’s harm. If their claim succeeds, they may be able to recover compensation for medical treatment for physical injuries caused by bullying, as well as counseling or other treatment for psychological harm. Non-economic damages like pain and suffering also may be available.
Bullying and Discrimination
Some bullies target children due to certain protected traits. Federal civil rights laws require schools to address conduct that is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation or gender identity), disability, or religion if it is unwelcome and objectively offensive and if it creates a hostile environment at school.
In some cases, parents may be able to sue the parents of the bully who harmed their child. Parental responsibility laws may hold parents accountable for actions of their children between certain ages, although these laws vary by state.
Students generally perpetrate bullying, but a teacher may engage in these behaviors as well. When this happens, parents may bring a claim against the teacher and possibly also against the school. They might argue that the school failed to use proper care during the hiring process to ensure that the teacher was qualified and trustworthy, or that the school did not properly respond to reports that the teacher was engaging in bullying.
Special rules apply to cases involving public schools. A person planning to sue a government entity like a school district usually must file a notice of claim (or the equivalent) with the school district or the appropriate government agency. These deadlines tend to expire relatively quickly, so parents should act promptly if they are considering this type of claim. Parents can proceed with filing a lawsuit in court only if the district or other government agency denies the claim or fails to respond to the claim within a specified time. Further restrictions on personal injury lawsuits against a school district may apply as well, depending on the state and the surrounding circumstances.
Strategies for Preventing Bullying
In addition to staying alert to signs that their child is experiencing bullying, parents should try to take the time to talk with their child about their school day. They can try to ask open-ended questions, rather than questions that elicit short, yes/no answers. Parents also might want to get to know the friends of their children so that they can see how they interact with their peers.
Parents should understand that their child looks to them for guidance on how to behave around others. By modeling respectful interactions, they can help their child develop good habits and encourage them to expect respect from their peers.
Getting a child involved in activities that they enjoy, inside and outside school, can help them find friends with similar interests and boost their confidence. This can provide a shield against bullying. Parents also can advise their children on how to handle a bully in ways that deescalate the confrontation. They should urge their child to seek help from adults whom they trust if they experience bullying. Many children fail to report bullying because they see going to adults as a sign of weakness. This can make a problem grow worse and become harder to resolve.