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Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide: A Lesson for Schools

Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide: A Lesson for Schools

By Adele Kimmel, Managing Attorney

The start of the new school year has already provided a painful lesson on the effects of bullying. After the first day of school, 15-year-old Bart Palosz of Greenwich, Conn., killed himself in an apparent effort to escape years of unrelenting harassment at school. Just last week, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Lakeland, Fla., followed suit, reportedly after enduring cyberbullying by a large group of middle school children who regularly urged her to kill herself.

Bart was just beginning his sophomore year at Greenwich High School when he killed himself with the family shotgun. According to the NY Times, Bart was picked on soon after moving to Greenwich from Poland seven years ago. Boys at school taunted him for his accent, pushed him into bushes or down stairs, and smashed his new cellphone. And the bullying escalated as he got older. Bart’s sister, Beta Palosz, says the family asked Bart’s school for help, but school officials did nothing after meeting with her parents.

Rebecca was starting seventh grade at a new middle school when she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home in Lakeland, Fla., and leaped to her death. According to the NY Times, Rebecca had been bullied online and at Crystal Lake Middle School by a group of 15 students for over a year. In addition to pushing and hitting Rebecca at school, they barraged her with hostile online messages. Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, says she complained to school officials for several months about the bullying to no avail, so she pulled Rebecca out of the school.

These tragic events raise a host of questions for communities, schools, parents, and children across the country. But there is one question we all wish we could answer definitively: How do we protect our children from bullying? There is no single answer to this question.  And it’s gotten harder for parents and schools to protect kids who are tormented online through a new set of texting and photo-sharing cellphone applications—such as ask.fm, Kik and Voxer—which most adults, including Rebecca’s mother, have never even heard of.

So, how do we protect our children from bullying? To answer that question, we start by looking at who bears responsibility for protecting our children. To be sure, this is a shared responsibility. Parents play a crucial role, as do the schools to which we entrust our kids five days per week for over six hours a day.

All too often, our schools are turning a blind eye to bullying. This needs to stop. Schools are not powerless to protect students from “traditional” or online bullying. In fact, in many instances, schools are required by law to take action to try to stop bullying. And when schools know that a student is being severely and repeatedly harassed, there is simply no excuse for failing to take action. This is precisely why Public Justice launched its Anti-Bullying Campaign—to hold school districts and officials accountable when they fail to take appropriate action to protect our kids from bullying.

Bart suffered biased-based bullying at school for seven years. Seven years! If Bart killed himself because of the bullying, and the school knew about the bullying and didn’t do anything to try to stop it, then the school district should be held accountable in court for its role in Bart’s death.

There are also serious questions about whether Rebecca’s former middle school bears some legal responsibility for her death. Though much of the cyberbullying occurred off school grounds, Rebecca was physically assaulted at school. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we learn that some of the hostile online messages were sent by students while at school. School officials cannot shrug off their responsibility to protect kids when some of the harassment occurs online, off school grounds. If harassment is also occurring at school, school officials have a legal responsibility to address it.

Of course, there is nothing that Bart or Rebecca’s school districts can do to bring these children back or relieve their families’ suffering. But those and other school districts can learn a lesson from these tragedies. They can do a far better job of protecting our children by building respectful school climates that would substantially reduce all forms of bullying. This means investing time and resources in providing anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying training for teachers, school administrators, and students alike.

Every school district should be making this investment. As the tragedies of Bart and Rebecca tell us, the stakes are simply too high for schools not to make this investment.