School Bullying

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 having been informed, the school failed to take action, resulting in Phoebe’s suicide.

Fortunately, Connecticut, New York, and the Federal Government have recognized the impact of bullying and have made genuine efforts to address the problem.

Connecticut and New York have both passed sweeping anti-bullying laws, which took effect in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Both laws, as amended, have expanded school staff training, addressed cyber-bullying, devised statewide assessments, and delineated further responsibilities for schools.


What kind of actions qualify as bullying?

In 2019, the Connecticut General Assembly redefined bullying as “an act that is direct or indirect and severe, persistent or pervasive, which

  1. causes physical or emotional harm to an individual
  2. places an individual in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm, or
  3.  infringes on the rights or opportunities of an individual at school.”

Additionally, pursuant to Connecticut law, cyber-bullying is defined 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.”

Meanwhile, in New York, the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) defines “harassment” in terms of “creating a hostile environment that unreasonably sustainably interferes with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits, or mental, emotional or physical wellbeing or conduct, verbal threats, intimidation or abuse that reasonably causes or would reasonably be expected to cause a student to fear for his or her physical safety.”


How can parents inform schools that their child is being bullied?

As students are often and understandably scared to report these acts for fear ofretaliation, the board must also provide a way for parents or guardians of the afflicted students to file written reports of suspected bullying.

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.


What are the school’s obligations in addressing bullying in Connecticut?

In Connecticut, each local or regional board of education must approve of a safe school climate plan and submit it to the State Department of Education.

The plan’s requirements can be broken down into three general components:

(1) the investigation and resolution process for handling bullying complaints

(2) the specific bullying training school staff must undergo

(3) steps to track and improve anti-bullying plans.


What are the school’s obligations in addressing bullying in New York?

The DASA requires school districts to:

(i) modify their Codes of Conduct to include prohibitions on harassment, bullying, and discrimination, and disseminate the updated code to students and their parents

(ii) train school employees on the topics of bullying, harassment, and discrimination

(iii) designate Dignity Act Coordinators for each district school

(iv) provide students with instruction intended to discourage harassment, bullying, and discrimination.


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 sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all boards of education throughout the country advocating for a more forceful approach to addressing bullying in schools.

The Department of Education letter sets forth four major responsibilities that schools must undertake to address discrimination against students in the school.

  1.  When responding to harassment, the school must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate the situation.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


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

Under Connecticut and New York law, there is no definitive answer as to when a school may be liable for an act of student bullying. Therefore, it is best to consult with an attorney before contemplating a negligence claim.


Maya Murphy P.C. was proudly included in the 2024 Edition of Best Law Firms®, ranked among the top firms in the nation. In addition, Managing Partner Joseph C. Maya was selected to The Best Lawyers in America® 2024 for his work in Employment Law and Education Law in Connecticut. Recognition in Best Lawyers® is awarded to firms and attorneys who demonstrate excellence in the industry and is widely regarded by both clients and legal professionals as a significant honor.

Our firm in Westport, Connecticut serves clients with legal assistance all over the state, including the towns of Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, Bethel, Branford, Bridgeport, Brookfield, Cheshire, Danbury, Darien, Derby, East Haven, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Guilford, Hamden, Madison, Meriden, Middlebury, Milford, Monroe, Naugatuck, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Haven, Newton, North Branford, North Haven, Norwalk, Orange, Oxford, Prospect, Redding, Ridgefield, Seymour, Shelton, Sherman, Southbury, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Wallingford, Waterbury, West Haven, Weston, Westport, Wilton, and Woodbridge. In addition to assisting clients in Connecticut, our firm handles education law matters in New York as well.

If you have any questions about education law in Connecticut or would like to speak to an attorney about a legal matter, please contact Joseph C. Maya and the other experienced attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. at (203) 221-3100 or to schedule a free initial consultation today.