Law & School: Who’s legally liable for bullying?

August 8, 2012

School Law

(Editor’s note: With August being the “back to school” month for everyone from preschoolers to law students, we’ll be looking at recent important developments in education law throughout the month.)

You can read the first week’s post about the unconstitutional high school graduation practices in church here.

Bullying in schools has become an increasingly serious problem.

The perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre were discovered to have previously been the victims of bullying.

Several subsequent school shooting perpetrators were likewise the victims of bullying.

Notwithstanding its role in school shootings, bullying is also directly linked to teen suicides – and at a much higher incidence rate.

Is anyone legally liable when these tragedies occur?

According to Jill and Jim Moore, the parents of the late Alex Moore, the county board of education in which this bullying occurred is liable.

Alex was the victim of bullying at her high school, and tragically took her own life in May of 2010 at the age of 15.

The Moores filed suit in May of 2012 against the Chilton County Alabama Board of Education, claiming that the board both violated Alex’s constitutional right to bodily integrity (under 42 U.S. C. §1983) and discriminated against her because of her disability (under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)).

These violations, according to the complaint, led to Alex’s untimely death.

The complaint lists a brief recent history of bullying in the U.S. along with several actions taken by the federal government directing schools on steps to take to minimize bullying on school grounds.

According to the complaint, this is proof that the school should have been on notice to take action about bullying.

This bullying, described in the complaint, details some truly cruel and shocking acts against Alex, who was targeted because she was “overweight” and suffered from Blount’s disease, a growth disorder that causes the lower leg to angle inward (making the person appear bow-legged).

For instance, Alex was regularly “the target of ‘pig races’ on the school bus.”

The object of this game was “for senior boys to chase and catch a girl that they thought was the ugliest and fattest girl, and to kiss that girl on the cheek.”

Alex “was often singled out by the senior boys, to the perverse delight of onlookers, including the bus driver employed by the school.”

The complaint alleges that school officials were aware of this activity, but remained indifferent (or, in the case of this school bus driver, implicitly encouraged it).

Nevertheless, the complaint ventures into uncharted territory, at least to a small extent.

Official school policy seemingly condemns bullying, in contrast to some previous lawsuits, so the plaintiffs have to show either that the school board either failed to properly train or supervise its employees; or had a widespread “custom” detached from its policies that condoned bullying.

On top of that, the plaintiffs will have to show that either of these caused the bullying to some significant degree.

Neither of these showings is impossible, nor are they easy in any sense.

If the lawsuit fails, who’s responsible for the behavior of the bullying minors?

Surprising as this may come to some, their parents.

Legally speaking, minors above a certain age are liable for their own tortious actions, but effectively, their parents are the ones who end up taking the fall for them in court.

Considering the outrageousness of some of this bullying, I would be surprised if these minors were able to escape tort liability.

Of course, individual students are not as big of a target for lawsuits as deeper-pocketed school boards.

However, if such lawsuits are to be viewed as mechanisms to deter bullying, it’s much more effective to target individuals instead of the school board itself.

Nonetheless, though deterrence may now be of very little to help Jim and Jill Moore, it may very well be motivating them to help prevent future tragedies such as the case of Alex Moore.