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Important Victory for Bullying Victims Everywhere

Important Victory for Bullying Victims Everywhere

Graffiti photographed by security at Pine Bush High School.

By Adele Kimmel
Senior Attorney 

Today, a federal court put all schools on notice that they can’t ignore severe harassment and, if they do, they risk being held accountable in court.

What does the law require schools to do to protect students from bullying? This is a burning question that’s important to students, parents, and schools alike. And the decision today in T.E. v. Pine Bush Central School District provides important guidance for everyone.

The case involves five Jewish students who suffered virulent anti-Semitic harassment while attending schools in Pine Bush Central School District, located in New York’s Hudson Valley. With assistance from Public Justice, the students sued the school district and individual administrators for acting with “deliberate indifference” to the harassment, in violation of federal and state civil rights laws.

The school district does not dispute the numerous incidents of harassment. It nonetheless asked the court to dismiss three of the students’ cases, arguing that its response to the harassment was adequate.

The court rejected the school district’s arguments, allowing the students to proceed with their case. This is an important victory for these kids and all victims of bullying and harassment, as the court’s opinion provides school districts with a roadmap of their legal obligations to respond to student-on-student harassment.

Some school districts—like Pine Bush—believe they are fulfilling their obligation to protect kids if they discipline individual students for harassment and hold a handful of anti-bullying assemblies. Not so.

In the court’s view, when harassment amounts to a “culture” of bias, schools must do more. They need to take steps that could plausibly change that culture.

Mind you, school districts do not need to entirely cleanse their schools of harassment to avoid legal liability. Nor do bullying victims have a right to demand that schools take specific remedial measures.

But schools must take steps that are reasonably calculated to end the harassment. And when schools know that their efforts to end the harassment are ineffective, they must try a different approach.

Public Justice is doing its part to make sure our nation’s schools do a better job of protecting our children from bullying and harassment. Through our Anti-Bullying Campaign, we are filing lawsuits to hold school districts and officials accountable when they fail to take appropriate action to address bullying.

Today’s victory in T.E. v. Pine Bush Central School District shows the important role that our civil justice system plays in this process. Schools are now on notice that they can’t continue to turn a blind eye to rampant harassment.

If they do, Public Justice will be watching. And acting.