Bullying

Joseph Maya selected to 2022 Edition of Best Lawyers in America

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Westport, CT

 

Maya Murphy, P.C. is pleased to announce that Joseph Maya has been included in the 2022 edition of The Best Lawyers in America®. Since it was first published in 1983, Best Lawyers has become universally regarded as the definitive guide to legal excellence.

Joseph Maya, a Connecticut and New York-based litigation attorney, was recognized in The Best Lawyers in America© 2022 edition. He has been rated Best Lawyers in America and ranks among the top private practice attorneys nationwide. Attorneys listed in this edition of The Best Lawyers in America were selected after an exhaustive peer-review survey that confidentially investigates the professional abilities and experience of each lawyer. Recognition in Best Lawyers® is widely regarded by both clients and legal professionals as a significant honor.

Mr. Maya has been practicing law in Connecticut for more than 25 years. He has been a licensed attorney in New York for more than 30 years.

“Best Lawyers was founded in 1981 with the purpose of highlighting the extraordinary accomplishments of those in the legal profession,” said Best Lawyers CEO Phillip Greer. “We are proud to continue to serve as the most reliable, unbiased source of legal referrals worldwide.”

Lawyers on The Best Lawyers in America list are divided by geographic region and practice areas. They are reviewed by their peers based on professional expertise, and undergo an authentication process to make sure they are in current practice and in good standing.

 

Maya Murphy, P.C. has offices in Westport, CT and New York City. For additional information on Joseph Maya or Maya Murphy, P.C., please visit its website at https://mayalaw.com, or call 203-221-3100.

 

What Steps Do Anti-Bullying Laws Take in Connecticut?

Public Act 11-232 takes steps to prevent bullying and to ensure that every child has the right to learn in public schools without the fear of teasing, humiliation or assault.  Schools are required  to: (1) adopt a clear policy against bullying behaviors; (2) train all school staff who interact with students on how to prevent bullying; (3) ensure that immediate action is taken whenever staff observes bullying or receives a report; and (4) gather data to access bullying in the school.

Further, the definition of “bullying” has been amended to add cyber-bullying, to clarify what constitutes bullying, and to eliminate the requirement that the bullying must exist during the school year only.  The new definition includes enumerated categories to clarify that bullying includes acts based on actual or perceived characteristics of students.

If you have any questions related to education law in Connecticut, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. at (203) 221-3100 or e-mail him directly at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

What Is My Child’s School Required to Do to Prevent or Address Bullying?

Schools are required to take a number of steps to prevent bullying in the first place and, if it occurs, to address and curtail it.  Each school board is required to have in place a plan, referred to as the “safe school climate plan,” to proactively address bullying.  The plan must include, among other things, a process for students to anonymously report bullying and for parents or guardians to file a written report with the school regarding any incident of bullying they become aware of.

The safe school climate plan also requires school employees to orally report to a designated school employee called the “safe school climate specialist” any incident of bullying within one school day of becoming aware of it, and to file a written report within two days.  The safe school climate specialist is required to review anonymous reports, and to promptly investigate any written reports of bullying.  The school must report the number of verified instances of bullying to the State Commissioner of Education on an annual basis.

If you have any questions related to education law in Connecticut, please contact JosephC. Maya, Esq. at (203) 221-3100 or e-mail him directly at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Bullying Under Connecticut Law

In 2011, the Connecticut legislature passed a comprehensive anti-bullying law that defines bullying to mean repeated communications, including electronic communications, or repeated physical acts or gestures by a student directed to another student in the same school district that:

(i) Causes physical or emotional harm to the student who is the target of the bullying or damages this or her property,

(ii) places the student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself, or of damage to his or her property,

(iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the student,

(iv) infringes on the rights of the student at school, or

(v) substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.

Bullying includes, among other things, a written, oral or electronic communication or physical act or gesture based on any actual or perceived differentiating characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, socioeconomic status, academic status, physical appearance, or mental, physical, developmental or sensory disability, or by association with an individual or group who has or is perceived to have one or more of such characteristics.

If you have any questions related to education law or school bullying in Connecticut, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. at (203) 221-3100 or e-mail him directly at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

School Bullying and Connecticut Law

Phoebe Prince was a fifteen-year old girl who had moved from Ireland to attend South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Instead of enjoying her teen years, however, she was for several months relentlessly tormented by classmates. Despite months of verbal and social media attacks by other students—she was called an “Irish slut” and “whore,” had her books routinely knocked out of her hands and received threatening text messages—the school failed to take action, even as Phoebe informed administrators about the bullying. On January 14, 2010, after a classmate threw a Red Bull can at her from a car while she was walking back from school, Phoebe hung herself in a stairwell.

Phoebe’s suicide stands as a tragic testament to the negative impact bullying may have on students. Connecticut, as other states, is not immune to such tragedies. In 2002, a Meriden high school student killed himself after enduring months of verbal and physical abuse. Even when bullying does not drive students to suicide, it may have other harmful effects. According to a recent survey, Connecticut high school students who admitted to being bullied are more likely to experience depression, sleep less, skip school and attempt suicide.

Fortunately, both Connecticut and the federal government have recognized the impact of bullying and have made genuine efforts to address the problem. While there are currently no federal anti-bullying laws, the U.S. Department of Education has, among other things, created a federal task force to elicit ideas from the public, held a bullying summit, and sent a “Dear Colleagues” letter reminding schools that they may be liable under federal civil rights laws for bullying among students.

For its part, Connecticut passed a sweeping anti-bullying law, which took effect on July 1, 2011, expanding school staff training, addressing cyber-bullying, devising statewide assessments, and delineating further responsibilities for schools. The General Assembly has outlined specific criteria and listed a number of actions that would qualify as bullying, including cyber-bullying. However, parents should not limit themselves to the language of the statute. They should consult the school handbook and the record of verified acts of bullying (described below) for more specific information.

What kind of actions qualify as bullying?

Starting July 1, 2011, the General Assembly redefined bullying as “the repeated use of a written, oral or electronic communication or physical act by one or more students directed at another student within the same school district which:

1) Physically or emotionally harms the student or damages that student’s property;
2) Places such student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself, or of damage to his or her property;
3) Creates a hostile school environment for that student;
4) Infringes on that student’s rights at school; or
5) Substantially disrupts the educational process or the orderly operation of the school. ”

Building on federal civil rights laws, the General Assembly has also clarified that bullying based on any of the following traits would also fall under the definition:

• Race or color
• Religion
• Ancestry
• National origin
• Gender
• Sexual orientation
• Gender identity or expression
• Socioeconomic status
• Academic status
• Physical appearance
• Mental, physical, development or sensory disability

Perhaps most importantly, the General Assembly has honed in on cyber-bullying, which is “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.” Under the definition, the use of email, text messages, live web streams by a student or group of students to ridicule or humiliate another student would be considered cyber-bullying.

Nevertheless, parents should still consult the school’s bullying policy for more detail as to what behavior qualifies as bullying since districts and local boards may have modified the definition. Parents can usually find the policy in the school handbook or on the school website. If the policy is not available in the school publication or website, parents should ask for a copy of the policy, which the school is required to provide immediately upon request.

The local board also must establish a procedure for each school to maintain reports of bullying in the school and maintain a list of verified acts of bullying, which they also have to make available to parents. The list, at a minimum, should provide some details on each individual act. Regardless of the format, the school cannot include the names of any students involved in the action under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The federal act also forbids schools from informing parents about the consequences imposed upon the bullying child.
How can parents inform schools that their child is being bullied?

As part of a required safe school climate plan, the local or regional board of education must have a process in place for students to anonymously report to school employees acts of bullying. Under the statute, “school employees” include a teacher, substitute teacher, school administrator, school superintendent, guidance counselor, psychologist, social worker, nurse, physician, paraprofessional, or anyone who has regular contact with students through the performance of his or her duties. The board must notify parents annually about the process by which students can make such reports.

Because students are often and understandably scared to report these acts for fear of retaliation, the board must also provide a way for parents or guardians of the afflicted students to file written reports of suspected bullying. Moreover, any school employee who witnesses an act of bullying or receives word from a student of such an occurrence must notify the safe school climate specialist (who we will discuss later on in the section) or another school administrator if the climate specialist is not available, no later than the next school day after the bullying takes place. The school employee must file a written report within two days after the bullying incident.

To encourage people to report acts of bullying, the statute insulates school employees, students, and parents from any resulting lawsuits provided they follow the relevant provisions outlined in the statute and act in good faith. This immunity extends to local boards that are making good-faith efforts to implement a safe school climate plan or investigate bullying incidents. This immunity does not attach if their actions were reckless, willful, or wanton.

Before filing a bullying complaint, parents should consider meeting with administrators or teachers to discuss the bullying incident. Given the immediate and harmful impact that bullying has on a child, parents should involve the relevant school authorities as fully and early as possible. If parents and school officials cannot informally resolve the situation, parents should file a formal complaint. Prior to filing, parents should gather as much documentation as possible. Documents reflecting conversations that parents have had with their child and/or the bully, relevant written communications with school staff, messages passed around the Internet, accounts of previous attempts to address the situation, and expert evaluations from social workers, physicians, or counselors would assist parents in making a strong case on behalf of their child.

Parents should specifically cite to and make clear that they are invoking both the Connecticut anti-bullying law and the specific policy of the school district. It is important to spell out the bullying incident in as much factual detail as possible, including the names, dates, locations, nature and the length of time of the bullying. Finally, parents should address the complaint to the school principal, with copies to teachers, the local board, social workers and counselors.

Once parents file the complaint, it is the obligation of the school to ensure the safety of the student who is being bullied. To ensure that the school is working towards this goal, parents should consult frequently with the relevant school staff as to what steps it is taking to address the issue and assess the success of such efforts.
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Our education law firm in Westport Connecticut serves clients with expulsion, discrimination, and general education law issues from all over the state including the towns of: Bethel, Bridgeport, Brookfield, Danbury, Darien, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Monroe, New Canaan, New Fairfield, Newton, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Shelton, Sherman, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Weston, Westport, and Wilton. We have the best education law attorneys in CT on staff that can help with your Connecticut or New York education issues today.

If you have any questions or would like to speak to an education law attorney about a pressing matter, please don’t hesitate to call our office at (203) 221-3100. We offer free consultations to all new clients.

Students in My Son’s School Are Bad Mouthing Him on Social Media. Is that Bullying?

Under Connecticut law, cyberbullying is specifically included in the definition of “bullying” and therefore is equally prohibited as physical or verbal misconduct. “Cyberbullying means 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.

One recent example of cyberbullying occurred in Westport’s Staples High School through the use of an App called Yik Yak, which allows students to post anonymous messages about their peers and teachers.  As was widely reported by both local and national news outlets, Yik Yak messages had a severely detrimental effect on individual students, faculty, the educational process and student culture in just a few hours before administrators disabled access to it on campus.

If you have any questions related to education law in Connecticut, please contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. at (203) 221-3100 or e-mail him directly at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Can Parents File a State or Federal Claim Against a School if Their Child is a Bullying Victim?

Can parents file a federal claim against the school if their child is a bullying victim?

Though there are no federal anti-bullying laws, the United States Department of Education (DOE) recently sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all boards of education throughout the country advocating a more forceful approach to addressing bullying in schools. In the letter, the DOE acknowledged that bullying “fosters a climate of fear and disrespect that can…impair the physical and psychological health of its victims” and “negatively affect learning.” More tellingly, the DOE noted that certain student misbehavior that violates a school’s anti-bullying policy could also trigger liability under federal antidiscrimination laws enforced by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Within the DOE, OCR is responsible for enforcing within a school setting, federal statutes prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, and disabilities. While the OCR does not explicitly pursue discrimination claims based on religion, it noted that many religious groups face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, thereby invoking a civil rights statute that is covered by OCR. OCR has decreed that if a school encourages, tolerates, fails to adequately address, or ignores peer harassment based on the traits mentioned above at a level sufficient to create a hostile school environment, the school staff may be liable under the statutes enforced by the OCR.

As a general proposition, a school may be liable if it fails to address harassment incidents about which it knows or should have known. The school may be deemed to be on notice if the harassment was in plain sight, widespread, or well known to the staff, such as harassment occurring in hallways, recess, or on the school bus. The school may also be put on notice if a responsible employee knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known about the harassment. An example of this is when a student or another person informed the employee about the bullying and that employee did not inform the administration about the incident.

The DOE letter sets forth four major responsibilities that schools must undertake to address discrimination against students in the school. First, when responding to harassment, the school must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate the situation. Though the specific steps will depend on factors such as the nature of the allegations, the age of the student(s) involved, and the size of the school, the school’s investigation must be prompt, comprehensive, and impartial.

Second, once the school determines that harassment did occur, it must take effective steps to end the harassment. Appropriate steps include separating the bully and the target, providing counseling for one or both of the students implicated in the matter, and taking disciplinary measures against the harasser. The letter emphasizes that the school must not penalize the student who was harassed.

Third, the school must take action to eliminate the hostile environment and its effects. To that end, schools may need to provide training or offer other intervention programs to the harassers, and on a broader level, to students, families, and school staff in the larger school community. It may also be necessary for the school to issue new policies against harassment and reporting procedures to respond to the problem. The school must provide additional services to the harassed student, especially if the school was late to respond to the incident.

Finally, the school must take steps to prevent future harassment and retaliation against the person filing the complaint. At a minimum, the school must reach out to harassed students and their families concerning how to report future incidents, follow up with them regarding any new harassment actions, and promptly respond to related problems as they arise.

As a final note, a school is required to discharge these duties if the misconduct falls under the anti-bullying policy, regardless of whether the student complained, requested the school to take action, or claimed that the misconduct was anti-discriminatory.

Can parents file a state claim against the school if their child is a bullying victim?

Under Connecticut law, there is no definitive answer as to when a school may be liable for an act of student bullying. We will outline the legal requirements and challenges parents may face in pursuing a negligence claim against the school. Whether a parent can prevail on such a claim is dependent on the unique facts and circumstances surrounding their child’s case. Therefore, it is best to consult with an attorney before contemplating a negligence claim.

Ministerial Actions

Municipal employees, including public school personnel, may be held liable for failing to adequately perform ministerial duties. Courts have generally characterized ministerial actions as prescribed actions that do not involve the exercise of judgment or discretion. These types of actions are usually secondary in nature and executed according to established policy, rule or practice. Examples of ministerial acts include a school’s failure to inspect and keep hallways clean pursuant to a board of education bulletin or the absence of adult supervision during recess.

The Connecticut courts appear to be divided as to whether a school’s failure to take action against bullying when it knew or should have known about the misconduct constitutes a misperformance of a ministerial function. In one case, a parent filed a lawsuit against the local board of education, the school principal, and school athletics personnel after the student claimed that he had been bullied and harassed by other teammates during an afterschool high school program. The court held that the failure of school employees to guarantee the student would not be bullied or harassed during a voluntary after-school program was not a misperformance of a ministerial action.

The court ruled differently in another case when a student who had been teased on a daily basis had an object thrown at her head, causing severe brain injuries. After the incident, the parents filed a negligence claim against the town, the local board of education and the school, alleging that they failed to follow their anti-bullying plan. Because the school had prescribed detailed procedures for teachers and administrators to handle bullying incidents, the court reasoned that their related actions could be ministerial in nature and allowed the parent to proceed to trial under that theory.

While no two bullying incidents are alike, whether a particular action is ministerial is dependent on the level of detail in that school’s anti-bullying plan. A parent will likely have a better chance to prevail on a negligence claim under a “ministerial action” theory if the school fails to discharge a responsibility that was spelled out in the plan in such exquisite detail that it eliminated or marginalized a school employee’s judgment or discretion. Since the revised state law mandates much more specific procedures for school employees to follow, some of these actions may be found to constitute ministerial functions. Given the recency of the law, it remains to be seen whether a court would adopt this view with respect to the actions outlined in the statute.

Governmental Actions

Municipal employees are granted qualified immunity with respect to performance of governmental acts, which are actions that benefit the public and are discretionary or supervisory in nature. Generally, there are three exceptions to the granting of this immunity: (1) actions that involve malice or intent to injure; (2) statutory causes of action against the municipal employee; or (3) a public employee’s failure to act directed at an identifiable person subject to imminent harm. The first two exceptions are self-explanatory, and most actions against schools for failing to prevent bullying do not involve them. Therefore, we will focus on the third exception.

To satisfy the third exception, so as to deprive a municipal employee of qualified immunity, plaintiffs have to show that there is (1) an identifiable victim; (2) imminent harm; and (3) a public official to whom it is apparent that his or her conduct is likely to subject that victim to harm. For school purposes, an identifiable person has traditionally included schoolchildren attending school during school hours. One Connecticut court, however, seemed to expand on this definition when it noted that a person could be considered an identifiable person if he or she was exposed to imminent harm (which we will discuss in more detail below). The court also noted that Connecticut appellate courts have relaxed the definition of “identifiable person” for schoolchildren and identified them as a “foreseeable class to be protected.”

To satisfy the “imminent harm” element, the particular misconduct must be limited in time and geographical area. With respect to the time component, the action must be temporal or of short duration. Risks that might occur at some unspecified time in the future do not constitute imminent harm. In applying this definition, one court has held that an incident where a student tripped another student during recess did meet the requirement because recess was a defined period of time that took place after lunch every school day. Another court held differently when a male student made a series of sexual threats and advances to a female student because the actions complained of occurred during different school years. In terms of the geographical area, the conduct has to be confined to a specific location. Therefore, if the action has the potential to occur at multiple places, then it would not constitute imminent harm.

As indicated above, the presence or absence of qualified immunity is a highly fact-specific inquiry. Therefore, if parents want to proceed with this claim against school officials, it would be best to consult with an attorney to evaluate the respective strengths and weaknesses of such a claim.
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Our education law firm in Westport Connecticut serves clients with expulsion, discrimination, and general education law issues from all over the state including the towns of: Bethel, Bridgeport, Brookfield, Danbury, Darien, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Monroe, New Canaan, New Fairfield, Newton, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Shelton, Sherman, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Weston, Westport, and Wilton. We have the best education law attorneys in CT on staff that can help with your Connecticut or New York education issues today.

If you have any questions or would like to speak to an education law attorney about a pressing matter, please don’t hesitate to call our office at (203) 221-3100. We offer free consultations to all new clients.

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Deliberate Indifference Required for School to be Liable under Title IX for Student-Student Harassment

In a New York District decision earlier this year, a student’s cause of action under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act against the Monroe-Woodbury School District was denied because it did not show deliberate indifference in response to the student’s claim of student-to-student sexual harassment.[1]

Parents on behalf of their fifteen year old daughter brought suit against Monroe–Woodbury Central School District pursuant to Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleging that she was deprived of an educational environment free from sexual harassment as required by federal law.

Beginning in January 2010, when she was in the eighth grade, the student was subjected to teasing, taunting, and physical bullying by other students, which she reported to her guidance counselor.  She was sexually assaulted by a male classmate who requested a handjob and subsequently ran her  hands over the genital area of his pants and attempted to shove her hands down his pants.[2] As a result of the incident, the student alleges that she was subjected to more taunting and name-calling by other students and in response began to engage in self- injurious behavior by cutting herself. When she began attending Monroe–Woodbury High School in September, another student and friend of the first continued to harass her and in November sexually assaulted her by pinning her against a locker and pushing his hands down her pants and blouse, touching her genital area and breast.[3]  The student began missing school frequently to avoid continued harassment.  At some point she confided in her guidance counselor that her absenteeism and self-injurious behavior was the result of the persistent teasing and the two incidents of sexual assault by her classmates.[4]

The School District recommended that she attend the GO Program, an out-of-district academic program, to which her parents agreed. After her first day there, CF reported to her parents that she was uncomfortable with this placement because the students there were “in many cases, not attending their regular high schools due to serious disciplinary records and incidents.”[5] When her parents again met with the principal, they requested that their daughter be transferred to another public school to continue her high school education.  The principal refused saying there were no other options besides the GO program.[6]

The parent brought suit alleging the school failed to: (1) initiate an investigation upon the parents’ verbal complaint; (2) conduct a prompt, equitable, and thorough investigation of the charges; (3) ensure that immediate corrective action be taken, including subjecting the offending individuals to appropriate disciplinary measures; and (4) inform CF of her right to pursue legal remedies.

Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that “[n]o person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)[7]. Title IX contains an implied private right of action for plaintiffs who bring suit against educational institutions that receive federal funding, and liability may be imposed upon a school district if it is found to be in violation of this law.

Title IX funding recipients may be held liable for student-on-student harassment if the plaintiff can establish damages only where the school district: (1) was deliberately indifferent; (2) to sexual harassment; (3) of which it had actual knowledge; (4) that was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived the victim of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.[8] A showing of deliberate indifference requires that the school had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment and either responded in a “clearly unreasonable manner in light of the known circumstances,”[9] or responded with remedial action only after a “lengthy and unjustified delay.”[10]

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s assertions that the GO Program was an “inappropriate” placement for her because it did not provide her with a “regular high school environment.” Saying even if it was inappropriate, “Title IX simply does not require recipient school districts to provide students with a ‘regular high school environment.’ Title IX does not prescribe any particular educational experience at all. Rather, Title IX merely prohibits schools from excluding anyone, on the basis of sex, from participating in an educational program that receives federal assistance; or denying the benefits of such programs on the basis of sex; or subjecting anyone in such programs to discrimination on the basis of sex.”[11]  Finding that the school did not cause the discrimination and the School District took some remedial action (not clearly unreasonable under the circumstances) in response to the student’s complaints, the Court dismissed the action.

Bullying and harassment in school should never be tolerated.  The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., are experienced and knowledgeable education law practitioners and assist clients in New York, Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, Westport, and elsewhere in Fairfield County. Should you have any questions about bullying, student harassment, school liability or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut, by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist., 12 CIV. 2200 ER, 2013 WL 177911 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 16, 2013)

[2] Compl.¶¶ 10-11

[3] Compl.¶¶ 12-13

[4] Id.

[5] Compl.¶¶ 14

[6] Id.

[7] Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)

[8] Williams v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Georgia, 477 F.3d 1282, 1293 (11th Cir.2007)

[10] Hayut v. State Univ. of N.Y., 352 F.3d 733, 751 (2d Cir.2003)

[11] KF ex rel. CF v. Monroe Woodbury Cent. Sch. Dist.

 

Identifying Acts of School Bullying

October is the National Anti-Bullying month, yet the issue of bullying in schools remains headline news on a routine basis. Just today, I read about an incident where “two girls beat [the victim’s] head into the wall and floor when the teacher was out of the room,” causing “permanent hearing loss in her right ear.”[1] Worse still are the stories where the victim took his or her own life as an escape from the daily torment inflicted by bullies.

Without a doubt, parents are scared for the safety of their children. In her on-the-air speech addressing an email she received from a viewer critical of her weight, Jennifer Livingston of WKBT News 8 in Wisconsin admitted that “as the mother of three young girls [the growing prevalence of school bullying] scares me to death.”[2] Ms. Livingston further emphasized, “The internet has become a weapon. Our schools have become a battleground.”[3] Therefore, it is imperative that you, as a parent, are able to recognize acts of bullying and report incidents to your child’s school. The former is the focus of this article.

Recognizing Bullying Behaviors

Under Connecticut law for over a year now, bullying is defined as “the repeated use of a written, oral or electronic communication or physical act by one or more students directed at another student within the same school district which:

  1. Physically or emotionally harms the student or damages that student’s property;
  2. Places such student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself, or of damage to his or her property;
  3. Creates a hostile school environment for the student;
  4. Infringes on that student’s rights at school; or
  5. Substantially disrupts the educational process or the orderly operation of the school.”[4]

Bullying on the basis of the following actual or perceived traits also qualifies: race or color; religion; ancestry; national origin; gender; sexual orientation; gender identity or expression; socioeconomic status; academic status; physical appearance; and mental, physical, developmental, or sensory disabilities.[5]

The Connecticut legislature has also taken aim at cyber-bullying, defined as “any act of bullying through the use of Internet, interactive and digital technologies, cellular mobile telephone or other mobile electronic devices or any electronic communications.”[6] Various forms of communication fall within this broad definition, including Facebook posts and messages, emails, text messages, live webcam sessions meant to ridicule or humiliate another student.

Notwithstanding these statutory definitions, you should review your child’s student handbook or school website to determine how your school district defines bullying. If neither source provides the policy, you should ask your school for a copy; this request must be fulfilled immediately.[7]

If you are the parent of a child who has been bullied or harassed at school, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner. The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. If you have any questions regarding bullying or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] “Two girls accused of beating, bullying student taken into custody,” by WDRB News. October 16, 2012: http://www.wdrb.com/story/19835044/two-girls?hpt=ju_bn4

[2] “Star brother Ron Livingston defends ‘fat’ anchor sister, Jennifer,” by News Limited Network. October 5, 2012: http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/celebrity/tv-anchor-jennifer-livingston-takes-on-bully-who-criticised-her-weight/story-e6frfmqi-1226488835303

[3] Id.

[4] 2011 Conn. Pub. Acts 11-232, § 1(a)(1).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at § 1(a)(2).

[7] “Bullying and Harassment in Connecticut: A Guide for Parents and Guardians,” by the Connecticut State Department of Education, on pp.5. http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/pdf/equity/title_ix/bullying_q_and_a.pdf

School Liability in a Student Bullying Case: It’s Fact-Driven

It’s a new day, and [expectantly] the news brings us yet another bullying story. Brandon Myers was a 12-year-old student in the Blue Springs (Missouri) School District. He was born with a cleft palate, and for that he “faced constant bullying from his classmates. … [O]n one occasion at recess, several students threatened to ‘fill up the hole’ in Brandon’s face before shoving him to the ground. They then reportedly pushed grass and dirt in his nose and mouth.”[1] Brandon’s parents taught him to be the bigger person and ignore the teasing and bullying. They also “encouraged their son to tell a teacher about the bullying. When he did… he was [rebuked and] told to stop being a ‘tattletale.’”[2]

Between the “constant tormenting” and teachers who simply would not listen, Brandon was pushed to one conclusion: suicide by hanging was his only recourse. Brandon’s parents just reached a settlement with the school district’s insurance company to the tune of $500,000. The agreement also included “making two administrators be retrained in bullying awareness” and the implementation of a bullying awareness day.[3]

Connecticut law is presently unsettled with respect to whether school districts are liable for bullying in schools. Each case is typically very fact-driven: “whether a parent can prevail on [a negligence claim] is dependent on the unique facts and circumstances surrounding their child’s case.”[4] It also depends on whether the action on part of the school was governmental or ministerial.

Governmental acts are performed to benefit the public and involve discretion and supervision. For public policy reasons, the Connecticut legislature has elected to grant qualified immunity to school personnel who perform acts of this nature. Therefore, liability will not attach in a negligence action unless one of three exceptions applies: 1) the act involves malice or intent to injure; 2) there is a statutory cause of action against the municipal employee; or 3) the municipal employee’s failure to act directed at an identifiable person subject to an imminent harm.[5]

On the other hand, ministerial acts do not allow the exercise of discretion or judgment. They are “usually secondary in nature and executed according to established policy, rule or practice,”[6] such as inspecting and keeping hallways clean or adult supervision at recess.[7] The failure to adequately perform a ministerial duty may result in liability of the school district. However, Connecticut courts are in disagreement as to whether or not “a school’s failure to take action against bullying when it knew or should have known about the misconduct constitutes a misperformance of a ministerial function.”[8]

The extent to which a school district details its anti-bullying policy appears to play a key role in the court’s decision, and “[a] parent will likely have a better chance to prevail on a negligence claim under a ‘ministerial action’ theory if the school fails to discharge a responsibility that was spelled out in the plan in such exquisite detail that it eliminated or marginalized a school employee’s judgment or discretion.”[9]

If you are the parent of a child who has been bullied or harassed at school, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner. The lawyers at Maya Murphy, P.C., assist clients in Bridgeport, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stamford, and Westport. If you have any questions regarding school liability or any other education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] “Blue Springs School District’s insurance company settled bullying lawsuit for $500,000,” by Melissa Yaeger. October 15, 2012: http://www.kshb.com/dpp/news/local_news/investigations/blue-springs-school-districts-insurance-company-settled-bullying-lawsuit-for-500000?hpt=ju_bn5

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] “Advocating on Your Child’s Behalf: A Parent’s Guide to Connecticut School Law,” by Joseph C. Maya, Esq. pp. 104-05.

[5] Esposito v. Town of Bethany, No. CV065002923, 2010 WL 2196910, at *4 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 3, 2010).

[6] Id. at *3.

[7] See Footnote 4 at pp.105.

[8] Compare Dornfried v. Berlin Board of Education, No. CV064011497S, 2008 WL 5220639, at *1 (Conn. Super. Ct. Sept. 26, 2008) with Esposito, supra, at *8.

[9] See Footnote 4 at pp.106.