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Using litigation to change the culture of bullying

Using litigation to change the culture of bullying

By Adrian Alvarez, Goldberg-Robb Attorney

Like so many other gay people, I was bullied in school. Although I didn’t come out until college, people perceived my sexual orientation: I was routinely called “faggot,” punched in the locker room, and generally ostracized. I was even bullied in band — a particularly hurtful experience. As a young musician obsessed with classical music, the music world had always been a place where I felt safe. It was also difficult because I’m pretty sure at least one of the band directors knew about the harassment, but never did anything to stop it. Like many others, he might have thought that bullying was just a part of growing up.

There might be something to be said for that argument. As the years went by, the bullying eventually eased up. I can say now that the trauma I experienced then hasn’t had any lasting effects on me — or any that I haven’t already dealt with. And with hindsight, I know that being bullied helped me to grow thicker skin and to deal with the unpleasant people we sometimes encounter in life.

Emily Bazelon speaks about this idea in her new book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. Acknowledging that while many kids do “bounce back” from the bullying, and that bullying may teach kids important life lessons, there is a catch: “The catch,” she writes, “is that smaller number of kids involved in bullying won’t recover so well. And we’re not very good yet at knowing who will emerge stronger from taunting and who will be seriously harmed by it — or God forbid, succumb to it.”

But it’s important to note that even when people bounce back, bullying can still leave them more vulnerable later in life. A recent study showed that people who were bullied as children are more likely to have anxiety problems as adults.

One challenge we face as public interest lawyers seeking to intervene on behalf of kids who have been bullied in school is simply to identify cases. This is hard to do because many victims never tell their parents the extent of the bullying they’ve endured, either because they’re ashamed or, in some perverse way, because they feel they’ve brought it on themselves. (While bullying often goes unreported, we know for sure that it’s happening to certain groups in very high numbers: a recent national survey found that 85 percent of kids who identify as LGBT said they’d been verbally harassed in school, and almost half said they’d been physically harassed.)

Another challenge to addressing the issue is that legal recourse is not always the best solution. The law does not view every kind of bullying equally, and the vast number of anti-bullying laws in this country do not create a private right of action to enforce the legislation. Moreover, attorneys who file lawsuits in bullying cases often only think to seek monetary damages.

But real change may only come about through injunctive relief that forces a school to create a safer climate for all kids, not just the ones bringing the lawsuit.

In Sticks and Stones, Bazelon talks about how bullying is often engedered by a larger “culture of combat” at a school:

[Monique] hadn’t learned how to play the game: how to mock other kids and be mocked in return. This was key to scaling the social heights of middle school. If you wanted to be one of the popular kids . . . you had to learn to trade barbs, to give as good as you got.

As public interest attorneys, we have to really study the problem from multiple angles and think about using tools like litigation to change the culture.

I’d like to end this post with a video by a girl named Marina. At a bullying conference I recently attended at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University, Emily Bazelon was the keynote speaker and she finished her talk with Marina’s video. (Bazelon writes about Marina in Sticks and Stones.) Bazelon wanted Marina to have the final word.

In the same spirit, I cede the floor to Marina and the countless other kids we’re still trying to identify.