Parents' Guide to School Bullying and Harassment
Student bullying is an immense problem across the United States. While this guide focuses on student bullying in the State of Washington, most of the advice I have provided is useful no matter where you live. This guide offers concrete steps parents can take to stop their child from being bullied.
PUT YOUR CHILD'S SCHOOL ON NOTICEIf my child was being bullied, the first thing I would do is prepare a letter addressed to the school's principal. The letter should address all your concerns by identifying the students bullying your child and the behaviors the students are exhibiting that amount to bullying. Your letter should request that the school investigate the bullying described in your letter and that all evidence from the investigation be preserved. Use a mail service that will allow you to obtain independent confirmation that your letter was delivered to the school (e.g. certified mail, UPS or Fed Ex).
As long as you are able to write the letter in a timely manner, I prefer starting with the letter because it requires you to do information gathering with your child and allows you to get your facts straight before speaking and meeting with your child's school. You should also document the bullying during this time. If the bullying is physical, take pictures of your child's scrapes, bruises, and broken bones. If your child is being cyberbullied, screenshot all social media posts, text messages, emails or other sources of evidence of bullying.
Next, I would call the school's principal, explain your concerns, request a meeting to discuss all relevant facts, and inform the principal that you have prepared a letter memorializing your concerns that he/she will receive next business day.
Your child's school district is now on notice that your child is being bullied. This is an important first step. By writing the letter and further communicating with your school's head administrator, your school cannot claim ignorance. Moreover, your school district now has a legal duty to investigate the alleged bullying incidents. Washington State law requires all incidents of bullying be investigated. RCW 28A.300.285(4) (Washington State Governors Office of the Education Ombuds' model policy provided in additional sources of information section). Additionally, depending on the nature and content of the bullying, your school may have a duty to investigate under federal laws such as Section 504 (disability discrimination), Title VI (race discrimination) or Title IX (sexual harassment and discrimination).
CONSIDER GETTING PARENTS OF BULLYING STUDENTS INVOLVEDThis is a judgment call. When your child is being bullied at school it will elicit strong emotions in you. The first question you must address is whether you are in a state of mind where you can effect positive outcomes from the meeting. You must be oriented towards finding solutions and not blaming the other parent(s) or their child(ren).
Next, you must address whether including the parents of the other students is likely to improve the situation. If you know the parents and believe them to be stand up people, then request a sit-down. On the other hand, if the apple does not fall far from the tree, including the parent may make the situation worse.
If you do not have a relationship with the parents, you can ask your school's principal whether he/she thinks it is a good idea to include the parents of the other student(s). It is important to remember, however, your principal works for the school and the school's best interest may not perfectly align with your child's best interest.
The goal is to get all parties or as many parties as possible to the table. Once you have a captive audience, your goal is not to assign blame but work towards solutions to put an end to your child being bullied.
DEPENDING ON THE SEVERITY OF THE BULLYING, CONSIDER CALLING THE POLICEIf the bullying is severe or has turned physical, call the police and request an investigator trained in investigating bullying cases. Request a criminal investigation be conducted.
After speaking with the investigator, follow-up with an email to the investigator reiterating your concerns discussed during the phone call and document and thank the investigator for all actions the investigator agreed to take during your phone conversation.
CONSIDER OBTAINING A THERAPIST FOR YOUR CHILDIf your child is struggling emotionally due to the bullying, make a written request to your school that it pay for your child's private therapy. Do not wait to hear back from the school, find a therapist your child is comfortable with. A therapist can provide perspective and coping mechanisms for your child. Do not allow a bad situation to turn into a tragedy.
HIRE AN ATTORNEYDepending on the circumstances, you may need to pose the threat of a lawsuit or file a lawsuit against your school district and/or against the bully. A lawsuit may be the only way to get a school or a bully and his/her parents' attention. A bullying case is typically handled by the attorney on contingency. Meaning there is little or no upfront costs to you the client other than possibly filing fees and things of that nature.
Depending on the conduct of the bully and the school's response to the bully's conduct, your school may be liable under federal laws such as Section 504, Title IV, Title IX or Section 1983. There are also a number of Washington State laws that may be implicated, including negligent supervision, negligent training, negligence per se, constitutional and civil rights violations.
Depending on the facts, causes of action against the bully could include assault, defamation, negligence, emotional distress and invasion of privacy. Additionally, the bully's parents may be liable under RCW 4.24.190 and other common law theories of negligence.
In most instances, the statute of limitations ranges from one to three years for the causes of action discussed above. You should obtain legal counsel as early on in the process as possible to ensure you are not time barred from exercising your legal rights.