An Overview of Legal Issues Relating to Bullying and Cyberbullying in Connecticut
The purpose of this article is to explore the laws, statutes, and cases relating to school bullying in Connecticut, specifically “cyberbullying,” and to provide an overview of the types of legal avenues that may be available to a victim of bullying.
What is Cyberbullying?
According to Connecticut’s General Assembly Commission on Children, “25 percent of Connecticut high school students – and 35 percent of the state’s 9thgraders – report having been bullied or harassed on school property in the previous year.”Furthermore, the report states that “[m]ore than 900,000 U.S. high school students reported being cyberbullied in one year.”According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Bullying may be the most underreported safety problem in American schools.”
The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) defines cyberbullying as “similar to other types of bullying, except that it takes place online and through text messages sent to cell phones.”www.ncpc.org. The NCPC has said that cyberbullying can take the form of:
Sending mean or threatening emails, instant messages, or text messages;
Excluding someone from an instant messenger buddy list or blocking their email for no reason;
Tricking someone into revealing personal or embarrassing information and sending it to others;
Breaking into someone’s email or instant message account to send cruel or untrue messages while posing as that person;
Creating websites to make fun of another person such as a classmate or teacher;
Using websites to rate peers as prettiest, ugliest, etc.
One recent study from Texas describes cyberbullying as bullying in which bullies use the Internet, text messaging, and similar technology, “which give an illusion to anonymity, [and] encourage bullying by those who would not normally engage in such behavior. They also allow a bully to avoid direct confrontation with the target.”
I. Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-222d
In July 2011, Governor Dannel Malloy signed Public Act 11-232 into law, marking Connecticut’s first anti-bullying legislation. The Act, known as “An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws,” defines bullying as “the repeated use by one or more students of a written, oral or electronic communication, such as cyberbullying, directed at or referring to another student attending school in the same district.”
The law defines cyberbullying as “any act of bullying through the use of the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, cellular mobile telephone or other mobile electronic devices or any electronic communications.”
The law requires that each local and regional board of education develop and implement a specific bullying policy addressing the existence of bullying within its schools. Specifically, the law requires the school policy to:
Enable students to anonymously report acts of bullying to school administrators;
Appoint a safe school climate coordinator to facilitate the school’s plan;
Enable the parents or guardians of students to file written reports of suspected bullying;
Require school administrators (including teachers and staff) who witness bullying or receive reports of bullying to notify a school administrator no more thanone dayafter the employee witnesses or receives the report of bullying; and to file a written report no more than two school days after making such oral report;
Provide for the inclusion of language in student codes of conduct concerning bullying;
Require each school to notify the parents or guardians of students who commit bullying and the parents or guardians of students who are the victims of bullying, and invite them to attend at least one meeting.
The Governmental Immunity Barrier
The doctrine of governmental immunity may preclude a plaintiff in Connecticut from recovering on a claim against a school district. Where the defendants’ activities in a bullying case are discretionary, they may enjoy the defense of governmental immunity; conversely, where the defendants’ activities alleged in the complaint are ministerial, they cannot be shielded by governmental immunity.
A ministerial act is an act which is “performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion . . ..” There must be a “written policy, directive, or guidelines mandating a particular course of action.”If a court deems the acts and responsibilities of a school district to be ministerial, governmental immunity will not serve to provide immunity.
That distinction was tested inSantoro v. Town of Hamden. There, the Connecticut Superior Court held that plaintiffs, parents of a bullying victim, could not maintain a private cause of action under §10-222d, finding that “section 10-222d does not provide a basis for circumventing the doctrine of sovereign immunity.” As such, the court granted defendants’ motion to strike two counts of plaintiffs’ complaint on the grounds that the school district was shielded by governmental immunity.
Exception to Immunity Defense
There is an exception to the immunity defense, which permits a tort action in the circumstance of “perceptible harm to an identifiable person.”Scruggs, at *70. The “identifiable person, imminent harm exception” applies when the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer charged with the exercise of discretion that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm. Rigoli v. Town of Shelton, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 349, at *9 (Feb. 6, 2012).
Connecticut courts adhere to a three-pronged test. Failure of a plaintiff to meet all three prongs will be fatal to a claim.Id.The test requires: (1) an imminent harm; (2) an identifiable victim; and (3) a public official to whom it is apparent that his or her conduct is likely to subject that victim to that harm. Id.The Court inEspositoconcluded that schoolchildren are a “foreseeable class to be protected.”Esposito, at *28.
II. Criminal Statutes and Cyberbullying
The 2011 revision to Connecticut’s anti-bullying statute included a new provision requiring the school principal, or the principal’s designee, “to notify the appropriate local law enforcement agency when such principal, or the principal’s designee, believes that any acts of bullying constitute criminal conduct.”
Below is a non-exhaustive list of crimes that may be implicated by school bullying.
a. Criminal Harassment
Connecticut General Statute § 53a-182b, Harassment in the first degree, and 53a-183, Harassment in the second degree, are Connecticut’s criminal harassment statutes.
A person is guilty of harassment in the first degree when, “with the intent to harass, annoy, alarm or terrorize another person, he threatens to kill or physically injure that person or any other person, and communicates such threat by telephone, or by telegraph, mail, computer network, as defined in section 53a-250, or any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm and has been convicted of [a specifically enumerated felony].”
A person is guilty of harassment in the second degree when, “(1) By telephone, he addresses another in or uses indecent or obscene language; or (2) with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person, he communicates with a person by telegraph or mail, by electronically transmitting a facsimile through connection with a telephone network, by computer network, as defined in section 53a-250, or by any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or (3) with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person, he makes a telephone call, whether or not a conversation ensues, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm.”
Not all cyberbullying, however, rises to the level of statutorily defined harassment. As one author has noted, “it is more difficult to prosecute bullies under anti-harassment or anti-stalking statutes due to the mens rea requirement in criminal proceedings . . . [and] thus, criminal statutes do not offer victims of cyberbullying a viable option to seek redress against their harassers.”
b. Bias Crimes
A person is guilty of intimidation based on bigotry or bias when such person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of the actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression of such other person, causes serious physical injury to such other person or to a third person.
Furthermore, a person is guilty of intimidation based on bigotry or bias when such person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of the actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression of such other person, does any of the following:
Causes physical contact with such other person;
Damages, destroys or defaces any real or personal property of such other person; or
Threatens, by word or act, described in subdivision (1) or (2) of this subsection, if there is reasonable cause to believe that an act described in subdivision (1) or (2) of this subsection will occur.
In an action for damages resulting from intimidation based on bigotry or bias, any person injured in person or property as a result of such an act may bring a civil action against the person who committed such act to recover damages for such injury. Where a plaintiff in such an action prevails, the courtshallaward treble damages and may award equitable relief and reasonable attorneys’ fees in its discretion.
c. Criminal Threats
Under Connecticut law, a person is guilty of threatening when: (1) by physical threat, such person intentionally places or attempts to place another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury; (2) such person threatens to commit any crime of violence with the intent to terrorize another person; or (3) such person threatens to commit such crime of violence in reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror.
III. Other Legal Issues Relating to Cyberbullying
In Connecticut, “a defamatory statement is defined as a communication that tends to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.”To establish a prima facie case of defamation, a plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendant published a defamatory statement; (2) the defamatory statement identified the plaintiff to a third person; (3) the defamatory statement was published to a third person; and (4) the plaintiffs reputation suffered injury as a result of the statement.” Id.
Cyberbullying by means of social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook may give rise to defamation claims, if the plaintiff can meet all of the elements of defamation in Connecticut. Sometimes, however, “the tortious statements are not necessarily published or widely disseminated to cause harm, but are specifically aimed at inflicting distress on a particular target based on the content of the communication itself . . ..”
Therefore, defamation might not be a viable claim if the hurtful speech or writing is not disseminated to a wide enough audience. It is, however, an avenue to be explored.
b. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
In order for a plaintiff to prevail in an intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action, the plaintiff must show: (1) that the actor intended to inflict emotional distress, or that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was likely a result of his conduct; (2) that the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) that the defendant’s conduct was the cause of the plaintiff’s distress, and (4) that the emotional distress sustained by the plaintiff was severe.”In order for liability to be imposed, the conduct must exceed “all bounds usually tolerated by decent of a very serious kind.”
Though it can be difficult to prove that the conduct was of such a level as to be intolerable by any measure of societal standards, egregious cases of cyberbullying may gave rise to successful IIED claims. To prove an IIED claim, there is no requirement that the plaintiff suffer any physical harm. As the Connecticut Supreme Court stated inWhelan v. Whelan, “The enormity of the outrage carries conviction that there has in fact been severe mental distress which is neither figured or trivial so that bodily harm is not required.”It should be noted that “mere insults, indignities, threats, petty oppressions, or other trivialities” will not give rise to a successful IIED claim.
Continuing Course of Conduct
An interesting facet of IIED law in Connecticut, and one that may apply to cyberbullying claims, is the invocation of the continuing course of conduct argument. While IIED has a three-year statute of limitations, the Connecticut Supreme Court has stated: “Courts that have applied the continuing course of conduct doctrine to claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress have done so on the ground that it is the repetition of the misconduct that makes it extreme and outrageous. Watts v. Chittenden, 301 Conn. 575 (2011).
In other words, a cause of action for IIED might not begin to accrue until plaintiff has endured such a repetitive course of conduct such that it has amounted to conduct that is extreme and outrageous.
In a 2003 case, the Connecticut Superior Court denied defendants’ motion to strike plaintiff-student’s claim for IIED, where the defendant co-conspirators locked the plaintiff in a locker, doused him with water, and threatened him with electrocution.
Conversely, inBrodsky v. Trumbull, the court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff’s state-law IIED claim, having granted summary judgment as to all of plaintiff’s federal claims in favor of defendants.
Many bullying cases sound in negligence. In a 2007 case, plaintiff parents alleged that defendant school district owed their son, the victim, “a duty to protect him and prevent intentional harm, provide him with a safe and productive learning environment, and supervise students at [the school] to prevent the alleged acts which harmed [plaintiff].”The Court, finding that plaintiff did not make a proper showing of entitlement to the “identifiable person-imminent harm exception to governmental immunity for tort claims” (discussedinfra), granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the state-law negligence claim.
InEsposito, plaintiff student, a victim of bullying, brought an action alleging that the defendant school district, town, and the individual defendants were negligent in failing to follow its own bullying policies, thereby failing to ensure that plaintiff could attend school in a harassment-free environment.Unlike inScruggs, the court inEspositodenied the school board’s motion for summary judgment, finding that governmental immunity did not apply and that the plaintiff met the identifiable person-imminent harm exception, as “schoolchildren are a foreseeable class to be protected.”Id.
Finally, the doctrine of negligent supervision, codified at Conn. Gen. Law 52-572, may be available as a claim against the parents of a bully.
In a 2010 decision, a Connecticut court denied defendant school district’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the student-plaintiff stated a plausible cause of action based on the defendants’ “reckless and wanton” supervision of plaintiff’s fellow classmates.The court found that the defendant school board “offered no argument as to why a claim of common-law recklessness [was] not cognizable,” given the specific facts of the case.
e. Privacy Tort Laws
The emergence of cyberbullying by means of Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites may give rise claims sounding in tort privacy laws. Connecticut recognizes four distinct kinds of invasion of privacy torts.Connecticut first recognized a cause of action for invasion of privacy inGoodrich v. Waterbury Republican, Inc., 188 Conn. 107 (1982), in which the Supreme Court clarified that the invasion of one’s privacy developed into “four distinct kinds of invasion of four different interests,” each of which “represents an interference of the right of the plaintiff to be let alone.” Goodrich, at 125.
The four categories of invasion of privacy are: (1) unreasonable intrusion upon the seclusion of another; (2) appropriation of the other’s name of likeness; (3) unreasonable publicity given to the other’s private life; or (4) publicity which unreasonably places the other in a false light before the public.Id.; 3 Restatement (2d) of Torts.
A cyberbullying claim may implicate the third cause of action – unreasonable publicity given to the other’s private life, and may also implicate the fourth cause of action – false light. To successfully allege a false light claim, a plaintiff must allege that “defendant gave publicity to a matter concerning the plaintiff.” Goodrich.
“Publicity” refers to a matter made public through communication “to the public at large or toso many personsthat the matter must be regarded as substantially certain to become one of public knowledge.” 3 Restatement of Torts (2d) §252d comment A. The Restatement clarifies that publication do a small group of people will not give rise to a false light cause of action.
f. Free Speech
A 2011 article in Law Technology News questioned how Connecticut’s anti-bullying law would fare in the face of free speech issues, noting that “[t]he new law puts school officials in the position of having to pass judgment on off-campus speech with little legal precedent to guide them . . . If they clamp down on online comments, they risk First Amendment challenges. If they’re too lenient, they could be deemed responsible if cyberbullying leads to tragedy.”
What worries some officials and lawmakers is the prospect of the regulation of speech that doesn’t take place on school grounds. Legal Director of the ACLU of Connecticut Sandra Staub stated during testimony in March of this year that “simply plugging the phrase ‘cyberbullying’ into the current statute on bullying policies will encourage and allow schools to regulate children’s speech and conduct while they are in their own homes.”
Essentially, Staub’s argument sounds in the notion that what children do in their own homes is under the control of their parents, who, pursuant to the United States Supreme Court, have a due process right to raise their children in the manner they see fit. Permitting schools to regulate such speech turns schools into internet police. Instead, Staub suggests that it is the school’s responsibility to provide an education that instills in students the means by which to deal with conflicts in an appropriate manner.
g. Federal Claims
Victims of bullying have brought substantive due process claims against school districts and school district officials. See,Risica ex rel. Risica v. Dumas, 466 F. Supp. 2d 434 (D. Conn. 2006) (granting defendant school district’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the School’s failure to prevent continued bullying did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation because the school had no constitutional duty to prevent student-on-student harassment).
Finally, where bullying is based on sexual harassment, a plaintiff may have a cause of action under Title IX of the Education Amendments. See,Brodsky, at *19 (granting defendant school board’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that defendants acted reasonably and expeditiously in response to any alleged harassment against plaintiff student).
In order to successfully allege a student-on-student sexual harassment claim, the Supreme Court of the United States has clarified that the school administration must have “acted with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment . . . [and the] harassment [must have been] so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”
With the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, cyberbullying is as prevalent a problem as ever. Schools around the country are taking steps to eradicate bullying of all kinds, but for the time being, it is everywhere. Bullying issues can be handled by attorneys with experience in education law.
Navigating the school district system can be difficult, frustrating, and intimidating, and without the right guidance, you may find yourself reaching dead ends. If you find yourself with questions relating to bullying, cyberbullying, or education law in general, do not hesitate to contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys in our Westport, CT office at 203-221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com.
Estate of Girard v. Town of Putnam, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 306 (Conn. Super. Ct. Jan. 28, 2011).
Rigoli v. Town of Shelton, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 349 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 6, 2012).
Santoro, 2006 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2418, at *9 (Aug. 18, 2006);see also,Karlen v. Westport Bd. Of Educ., 638 F. Supp. 2d 293, 302 (D. Conn. 2009) (dismissing plaintiff’s claim pursuant to Connecticut’s anti-bullying statute because the statute does not provide for a private cause of action).