Posts tagged with "bullying in schools"

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.

 

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.

Cyberbullying and Free Speech: Where Should Schools Draw the Line?

As the school year gets into full swing, education administrators continue to grapple with the ongoing problem of peer to peer bullying.  In addition to issues relating to the extent to which schools must prevent, intervene, and address on-campus bullying come free speech challenges and issues. At least one author has written about 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.”[1]

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.”[2] 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.

On the other side of the debate is the pervasiveness of cyberbullying and its devastating effects on children and young adults.  The nation woke up to the very real effects of bullying when Phoebe Prince, of Massachusetts, committed suicide in 2010 after her peers tormented her to the point at which she could not take it anymore.  Sadly, Prince’s story is not unique.  According to Connecticut’s General Assembly Commission on Children, “25 percent of Connecticut high school students – and 35 percent of the state’s 9th graders – report having been bullied or harassed on school property in the previous year.”[3] Furthermore, the report states that “[m]ore than 900,000 U.S. high school students reported being cyberbullied in one year.”[4] According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Bullying may be the most underreported safety problem in American schools.”[5]

While cyberbullying remains prevalent in schools, school administrators will continue to police their students while attempting to avoid infringing free speech.  The line, however, is a thin and tricky one.

If you have any questions about bullying or cyberbullying, or education law issues in general, do not hesitate to contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. in our Westport office, at 203-221-3100, or at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Jacqueline Rabe, New Conn. ‘Cyberbullying’ Law Prompts Free Speech Debate, Law Technology News (Sept. 7, 2011).

[2] Sandra Staub, Written Testimony Opposing Raised Bill No. 1138 An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws,

[3] Conn. Gen. Assembly Commission on Children, Anti-Bullying Bill Becomes Law, available at http://www.cga.ct.gov/coc/PDFs/bullying/2011_bullying_law.pdf (July 21, 2011).

[4] Id.

[5] http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=2460

Another Case Against the School District, Town Jumps Summary Judgment Hurdle

In a recent negligence action, the Superior Court of Connecticut at Danbury denied a motion for summary judgment filed by the Town of New Milford, the New Milford Board of Education, and several school employees (collectively the defendants). The Court was not persuaded that the defendants enjoyed governmental immunity from suit, or the claim that they did not owe a duty to a student-victim assaulted by another student on school grounds.

In this case, the plaintiff was the target of repeated bullying and harassment from a classmate, Kevin, during his freshman and sophomore years in high school. He endured pushing and shoving, being struck by a stack of school books, menacing stares, and even derogatory “gay” remarks from Kevin. The plaintiff constantly complained to various school administrators, though no meaningful action was ever taken. This culminated to a full-blown assault of the plaintiff at Kevin’s hands outside the school cafeteria.

The plaintiff sued the defendants, arguing that they had a duty to protect him from Kevin and failed to do so. “The plaintiff contends that [one individual defendant] had a duty to compel compliance with school rules and to prevent bullying and harassment… [as well as ] a legal duty to be alert to possible situations that might include bullying and to inform the administration immediately of such events.”[1] In addition, he claimed that governmental immunity was inapplicable, because he was an identifiable victim to an imminent harm. Finally, he asserted town liability because the Board of Education was an agent for the town in “mandating control” over the public high school.[2]

Municipal employees are “liable for the misperformance of ministerial acts, but has qualified immunity in the performance of governmental acts…”[3] Basically, governmental acts are supervisory and discretionary, while ministerial acts must “be performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion.”[4] However, even if a defendant successfully claims that the acts in question were discretionary, thus invoking governmental immunity, a plaintiff may still defeat a motion for summary judgment by asserting one of three exceptions (discussed in greater detail here): in this case, the identifiable person-imminent harm exception.

The identifiable person-imminent harm exception requires a showing of three things: “(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.”[5] A person will be deemed “identifiable… if the harm occurs within a limited temporal and geographical zone, involving a temporary condition;”[6] a harm is imminent if it is “ready to take place within the immediate future.”[7]

The Court sided with the plaintiff and denied summary judgment as to all defendants. It noted, “The [board of education’s] duty to supervise students is performed to the benefit of the municipality;”[8] in this case, the plaintiff’s claim didn’t involve his education, but rather “the inability of certain teachers and staff at New Milford High School to supervise and maintain control on its premises for the protection of its students.”[9] A duty to supervise students is not confined to just younger children, but also includes high school students because a gathering “in large numbers at lunch time or at sporting events would certainly seem to present a risk of incidents such as the one involved in this case occurring [an assault at school].”[10] Thus, on all grounds asserted by the defendants, the motion for summary judgment was denied.

This case, Straiton v. New Milford Board of Education, et al, appears to be continuing through the courts with a hearing scheduled for October 19, 2012. It may be found on the Judicial Branch website under DBD-CV10-6003255-S.

Bullying in schools has become a serious problem, and increasingly courts are willing to permit the case to proceed beyond a motion for summary judgment, despite claims of governmental immunity or no duty owed to the students. If you are the parent of a child who has been bullied or assaulted, despite repeated unaddressed complaints to administration, it is imperative that you consult with an experienced and knowledgeable school law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding bullying or other education law matters, 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 (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] Straiton v. New Milford Board of Education et al., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 773 at 15.

[2] Id. at 11.

[3] Bonington v. Westport, 297 Conn. 297, 306, 999 A.2d 700 (2010).

[4] Id.

[5] Cotto v. Board of Education, 294 Conn. 265, 273, 984 A.2d 58 (2009).

[6] Id. at 275-76.

[7] Stavrakis v. Price, Superior Court, judicial district of Litchfield, Docket No. CV 10 6001285, 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2257 (September 7, 2010, Roche, J.).

[8] Purzycki v. Fairfield, 244 Conn. 101, 112 (1998).

[9] Straiton, supra at 12-13.

[10] Maretz v. Huxley, Superior Court, judicial district of New Haven, Docket. No. CV 07 5011978 (January 12, 2009, Corradino, J.)

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.

According to Connecticut’s General Assembly Commission on Children, “25 percent of Connecticut high school students – and 35 percent of the state’s 9th graders – report having been bullied or harassed on school property in the previous year.”[1] Furthermore, the report states that “[m]ore than 900,000 U.S. high school students reported being cyberbullied in one year.”[2] According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Bullying may be the most underreported safety problem in American schools.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5] 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.”[6]

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 than one day after 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.[7] 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.”[8] 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 in Santoro 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.[9]

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 in Esposito concluded 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.”[10]

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.”[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]

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 court shall award treble damages and may award equitable relief and reasonable attorneys’ fees in its discretion.[14]

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.[15]

III. Other Legal Issues Relating to Cyberbullying

a. Defamation/Slander

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.”[16] 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 . . ..”[17]

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.”[18] In order for liability to be imposed, the conduct must exceed “all bounds usually tolerated by decent  of a very serious kind.”[19]

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 in Whelan 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.”[20] It should be noted that “mere insults, indignities, threats, petty oppressions, or other trivialities” will not give rise to a successful IIED claim.[21]

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.[22]

Conversely, in Brodsky 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.[23]

c. Negligence

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].”[24] 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” (discussed infra), granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the state-law negligence claim.

In Esposito, 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.[25] Unlike in Scruggs, the court in Esposito denied 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.

d. Recklessness

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.[26] 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.[27]

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.[28] Connecticut first recognized a cause of action for invasion of privacy in Goodrich 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 to so many persons that 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.”[29]

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.”[30] 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.”[31]

IV. Conclusion

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 an attorney in our Westport, Fairfield County office, at 203-221-3100.


[1] Conn. Gen. Assembly Commission on Children, Anti-Bullying Bill Becomes Law, available at http://www.cga.ct.gov/coc/PDFs/bullying/2011_bullying_law.pdf (July 21, 2011).

[2] Id.

[3] http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=2460

[4] Bullying: Legislative Changes, Texas Assc. of School Boards, Legal Servs., available at http://www.tasbrmf.org/training/conference/documents/2012conference_handouts/bullying.pdf.

[5] Conn. Gen. Law §10-222d(a)(1)

[6] Id.

[7] Estate of Girard v. Town of Putnam, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 306 (Conn. Super. Ct. Jan. 28, 2011).

[8] Rigoli v. Town of Shelton, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 349 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 6, 2012).

[9] 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).

[10] Public Act No. 11-232.

[11] Todd D. Erb, Comment, A Case for Strengthening School District Jurisdiction to Punish Off-Campus Incidents of Cyberbullying, 40 Ariz. St. L.J. 257, 279 (2008).

[12] Conn. Gen. Stat. §53a-181j.

[13] Conn. Gen. Stat. §53a-181k.

[14] Conn. Gen. Stat. §52-571c.

[15] Conn. Gen. Stat. §53a-62.

[16] Cweklinsky v. Mobil Chem. Co., 267 Conn. 210, 217 (2004).

[17] Andrew S. Kaufman, Cyberbullying and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, 245 New York Law Journal 27, Feb. 9, 2011.

[18] Peytan v. Ellis, 200 Conn. 243 (1986).

[19] Id., quoting Prosser & Keeton, Torts, 5th ed. 12, page 60.

[20] Whelan v. Whelan, 41 Conn. Sup. 519, 522 (1991).

[21] Restatement 2d.

[22] Gasper v. Sniffin, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1363 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 6, 2003).

[23] Brodsky v. Trumbull Bd. Of Educ., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8799, at *28 (D. Conn. Jan. 30, 2009).

[24] Scruggs v. Meriden Bd. Of Educ., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58517, 67-68 (D. Conn. Aug. 7, 2007).

[25] Esposito v. Town of Bethany, 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1050, at *1 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 3, 2010).

[26] Dornfried v. Berlin Bd. of Educ., 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2537 (Conn. Super. Ct. Oct. 4, 2010).

[27] Id., at *8.

[28] Law Offices of Frank N. Peluso, P.C. v. Rendahl, 2012 Ct. Sup. 2356 (Aug. 15, 2012).

[29] Jacqueline Rabe, New Conn. ‘Cyberbullying’ Law Prompts Free Speech Debate, Law Technology News (Sept. 7, 2011).

[30] Sandra Staub, Written Testimony Opposing Raised Bill No. 1138 An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws.

[31] Davis v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999).

The Application of Governmental Immunity to School Bullying Suits

In Connecticut, the doctrine of “governmental immunity” may bar a plaintiff bullying victim from succeeding in a claim against a school district.  The general concept of governmental immunity stems from the value judgment that government officers and employees should have discretion to carry out their duties without the perpetual fear or threat of a lawsuit for any injury caused in the administration of their duties.  However, the concept of governmental immunity applies only where municipal officers are engaged in discretionary acts, as opposed to ministerial acts.  A ministerial act refers to an act “which is performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion.”[1] In other words, for a plaintiff to allege the existence of a ministerial duty, he or she must demonstrate that “the defendant was required to perform in a prescribed manner and failed to do so.”[2] Connecticut courts have generally found that the supervision of students, implementation of school policies, and control of a school and its students are carried out through discretionary acts,[3] which allow a school to invoke governmental immunity if subjected to a suit.

However, there are three exceptions to discretionary act immunity.  Liability may be imposed for a discretionary act where the conduct alleged involves malice, wantonness, or intent to injure; liability may be imposed for a discretionary act when a statute specifically provides for a cause of action against a municipality for failure to enforce certain laws; and finally, liability may be imposed “when the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm.”[4] It is this last exception, the identifiable person-imminent harm exception, which is relevant in school bullying cases.  The Connecticut Supreme Court has “construed this exception to apply not only to identifiable individuals, but also to narrowly defined identifiable classes of foreseeable victims.”[5] Such victims can include victims of school bullying in cases where imminent harm was foreseeable if the defendants did not act with reasonable care.  Whether it would be apparent to a school district that their actions, or inactions, would be likely to subject a plaintiff to harm will be a major factor that a court uses in determining whether a school district can be immune from a bullying suit based on governmental immunity.

If you have any questions about bullying, cyberbullying, or education law in general, do not hesitate to contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq., in our Westport office, at 203-221-3100, or at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Heigl v. New Canaan, 218 Conn. 1, 5, 587 A.2d 423 (1991).

[2] Id.

[3] Rigoli v. Town of Shelton, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 349, at *9 (Feb. 6, 2012).

[4] Straiton v. New Milford Bd. Of Educ., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 773, at *20 (Mar. 13, 2012), quoting Violano v. Fernandez, 280 Conn. 310, 319-20 (2006).

[5] Straiton, at *22.

Connecticut’s Anti-Bullying Law

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 than one day after 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 law was enacted in response to alarmingly high reports of bullying in Connecticut, with studies showing that 25 percent of Connecticut high school students report having been bullied in the past year. Bullying and cyberbullying, an extension of bullying, have far-reaching and damaging consequences. Students may become withdrawn, flounder in their academics, suffer depression, and in the worst-case scenarios, attempt or commit suicide.

If you, your child, or a loved one is the victim of bullying in school, there are legal avenues. The attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. have experience in education law.

If you have any questions regarding Connecticut’s anti-bullying law, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.

Court Gives Plaintiff in Bullying Case Green Light to Proceed to Trial

In August 2006 Robert and Louise Dornfried filed suit against the Berlin Board of Education, its former and current superintendents,  the principal, the athletic director and the coach of Berlin High School football team on behalf of their minor son, Robby.  Robby’s parents alleged on their son’s behalf that, while a student at the high school and a place-kicker on the varsity football team, he was subjected to “incessant bullying, harassment, intimidation and was the victim of threats and/or acts of violence” by his teammates.

The parents further alleged that they complained of the misconduct to various school administrators, who, despite their knowledge of the behavior, did nothing to stop it.  As a result, Robby was allegedly forced to seek “medical care and treatment” and, halfway through his sophomore year, transferred to Northwest Catholic High School. Robby’s parents brought suit alleging negligence against the various defendants, claiming they knew or should have known that Robby was subjected to incessant bullying, harassment, intimidation, threats and/or acts of violence, but failed to take any action to prohibit, prevent, or even deter such conduct.

In a separate count, the parents claimed the principal, the athletic director and the football coach were reckless in their failure to stop the inappropriate behavior of Robby’s teammates, claiming they exhibited “a blatant and utter disregard for [Robby’s] safety and wellbeing.”  Notably, as permitted by Connecticut law, the plaintiff sought punitive damages under this count. The defendants initially attacked the plaintiff’s suit filing a motion to strike the negligence claims.

Granting the defendants’ motion, the Court held that the principal of governmental immunity barred the negligence claims because, as a general rule, a municipal employee has qualified immunity in the performance of acts that are discretionary in nature.  Although there is an exception when the injured party is an “identifiable person subject to imminent harm,” the Court held that Robby did not fall within that exception, explaining the only identifiable class of foreseeable victims the courts have recognized is that of school children attending public schools during school hours.  The Court ultimately held that, although participation in school sponsored athletic programs is most likely encouraged, participation is on a purely voluntary basis and, therefore, any resulting liability is barred by the doctrine of governmental immunity.  Significantly, although Robby was foreclosed from pursuing his negligence claims, his claim under a theory of recklessness, allowing for the recovery of punitive damages, was left intact. More recently, however, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment attempting to eliminate that cause of action as well.  The defendants essentially claimed that, with respect to the plaintiff’s recklessness count, there are no factual issues in dispute and that as a matter of law, they are entitled to a judgment in their favor.

The court denied the defendants’ motion, however, preserving the plaintiff’s case, as well as the potential for punitive damages.  Explaining its decision, the Court first noted that Robby’s parents alleged the defendants had actual knowledge of the bullying yet failed to act, resulting in further escalation of the bullying, and that the defendants knew their failure to act would result in further harm to Robby.  Significantly, the Court then explained that summary judgment should not be used in cases that concern important public issues or questions of inference as to motive or intent, or ones that involve subjective feelings and reactions.

Citing various factual disputes in this particular case, the Court ultimately held that it is “suffused with subjective impressions, intent, motive and pubic issues which do not easily conform to the standards of summary judgment.” This ruling is significant, in part, because, as mentioned, the plaintiffs alleged that the school system, as well as various administrators, were not just negligent, but were actually reckless in their failure to respond to the bullying in question, thus exposing the school system not only to actual or compensatory damages, but punitive damages as well.  This decision is also significant because, although there is always a potential that such rulings will be appealed, the Court effectively gave the plaintiffs a green light to proceed to trial.

By:       Michael DeMeola, Esq.

If you have any questions regarding a school bullying case, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.

 

Connecticut School Districts and Bullying: What Can Parents Do?

I was greeted this morning with a very unfortunate email.  The email concerned bullying in Westport Schools and included a heart wrenching video of an 8th grade girl claiming to be a victim of bullying in Westport schools. (http://patch.com/A-gcKG) It is just not enough to feel sorry for this victim of bullying, we need to question the effectiveness of the current law and policies in place to avoid the tragic consequences that other towns have dealt with because their students were victims of bullying.

I previously blogged about the revisions to Connecticut’s law against bullying in 2008.  Under Connecticut General Statute section 10-222d, the law requires “any overt acts by a student or group of students directed against another student with the intent to ridicule, harass, humiliate or intimidate the other student while on school grounds, at a school sponsored activity or on a school bus, which acts are committed more than once against any student during the school year.” In addition to definitional changes, the statute requires:

  1.  teachers and other staff members who witness acts of bullying to make written notification to school administrators;
  2. prohibits disciplinary actions based solely on the basis of an anonymous report of bullying;
  3. requires prevention strategies as well as interventions strategies;
  4. requires that parents of a student who commits verified acts of bullying or against whom such bullying occurred be notified by each school and be invited to attend at least one meeting;
  5. requires school to annually report the number of verified acts of bullying to the State Department of Education (DOE);
  6. no later than February 1, 2009, boards must submit the bullying policies to the DOE;
  7. no later than July 1, 2009, boards must include their bullying policy in their school district’s publications of rules, procedures and standards of conduct for school and in all of its student handbooks, and
  8.  effective July 1, 2009, boards must now provide in-service training for its teacher and administrators on prevention of bullying.

Westport responded to the requirements of this statute with a comprehensive bullying policy which can be found on the school district’s website under the tab for parents, and then selecting policies.  Here is the direct link to the policy: (http://www2.westport.k12.ct.us/media/policies/prohibition_against_bullying_5131.911_revised_8.25.2008.pdf)

Armed with Connecticut’s law and Westport’s policy, what should we do as parents, community members, and professionals?  I do not profess to have the answers but at a minimum, we should discuss this with our children, question the school administrators, guidance staff and teachers. Together we should challenge ourselves to make a difference using the channels available to us.  There are ways that we can help to effectuate change before it is too late.  If you know of a child affected by bullying, please act on their behalf.  Not every student will post a video to tell you this is happening. If the school is not addressing the bullying in a meaningful way to eradicate the conduct, legal redress is available and the courts will readily intervene.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact me by telephone in the Firm’s Westport office at (203) 221-3100 or by e-mail at SMaya@Mayalaw.com. Attorney Maya is a partner at Maya Murphy, P.C. Her practice is limited to Education Law and Trusts and Estates.