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Guilty bystanders: Why school officials must try to stop bullying

Guilty bystanders: Why school officials must try to stop bullying

By Adele Kimmel, Managing Attorney

Far too often, schools are not doing what the law and their own anti-bullying policies require to protect our children from bullying. In fact, eight out of every ten times that a child gets bullied at school, no adult intervenes. Why?

Is it because teachers and administrators are cold-hearted and uncaring? Of course not.

So why do so many teachers and school administrators fail to intervene when they witness or otherwise learn that students are being bullied? At least part of the explanation is that they do not know what to do. The fact is that half of our country’s school teachers and administrators have not received training on how to respond to bullying.

Another part of the explanation is that they often are not held accountable for failing to respond appropriately to bullying.

As a result, many school officials act as passive bystanders in response to known bullying. They are not, however, innocent bystanders. By doing little or nothing, they are exacerbating the problem. Their silent acceptance is precisely what allows — and often encourages — the bullying to continue.

But school officials, unlike students, have legal responsibilities to try to stop bullying that they know about. Though they certainly have broad discretion to decide how to respond to bullying, their discretion is not unlimited. 

For example, in Vance v. Spencer County Public School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a $220,000 jury verdict for a bullied girl, finding that there was sufficient evidence that the school board was deliberately indifferent to known sexual harassment by her peers, where officials took only minimal action in response to the bullying. Although school officials had talked with the offending students, they never disciplined the students or informed law enforcement about an assault that the students committed in a classroom. In the Sixth Circuit’s view, the school district had to take further action to avoid liability in these circumstances.

More recently, in Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a $1 million jury verdict against a school district on behalf of a high school student who was subjected to severe racial harassment by his peers for several years. Although school officials had suspended nearly every student identified as harassing the plaintiff and eventually implemented a day of anti-bullying training, the Second Circuit found there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that the school district’s remedial response was inadequate. The school district knew that disciplining the harassers did not deter others from engaging in serious racial harassment and that the harassment grew increasingly severe.

Both of these cases show that courts should not — and will not — defer to administrators’ inadequate responses to egregious harassment.

Though we cannot eliminate all bullying among school children, we can make school districts and officials respond appropriately to it — and help stop and deter a great deal of it — through effective litigation under federal and state laws. Litigation can help to change the culture of schools and school districts, so they address bullying appropriately. It can motivate school officials to insist that bullying is confronted, put teeth into school policies, require anti-bullying training, and teach tolerance to students. It can also compensate bullying victims for the injuries they have suffered.

The stakes are simply too high to allow school officials to act as passive bystanders to bullying.

For more information, visit our Anti-Bullying Campaign page and read our recently published primer, “Litigating Bullying Cases: Holding School Districts and Officials Accountable.”