Posts tagged with "bullying"

Student’s Negligence Action Against School

Student’s Negligence Action Against School, City of Stamford Survives Motion for Summary Judgment

Jesse was a twenty-year-old special education student attending high school in Stamford. She repeatedly informed teachers and school officials about the unwanted romantic advances made by her classmate, Jonathan, but no action was ever taken. On February 28, 2005, Jesse asked to use the restroom located in the special education classroom; she was then sexually assaulted by Jonathan. Both students were sent to the office of the special education coordinator, and Jesse explained what occurred. Despite this knowledge, school officials permitted the two to ride on the same school bus home, during which Jesse was teased and called a liar by Jonathan.

Various teachers and staff, the Board of Education, and even the City of Stamford were later sued in a negligence action filed by Jesse. She contended that “the defendants were aware of [Jonathan’s behavior], but they failed to take appropriate measures to protect [her] from the sexual assault.”[1] However, in their motion for summary judgment, the defendants claimed protection through governmental immunity.

Municipal employees are “liable for the misperformance of ministerial acts, but has qualified immunity in the performance of governmental acts…”[2] Basically, governmental acts are supervisory and discretionary, while ministerial acts must “be performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion.”[3] However, even if a defendant successfully claims, as they did in this case, 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.”[4] A person will be deemed “identifiable… if the harm occurs within a limited temporal and geographical zone, involving a temporary condition;”[5] a harm is imminent if it is “ready to take place within the immediate future.”[6]

In discussing the motion to dismiss, the Court agreed that Jesse was an identifiable victim of the assault, but she failed to meet the imminent harm requirement. There was no evidence on the record as to when the previous sexual advances were made, nor did she show that the defendants should have known the sexual assault would take place on or about February 28, 2005.[7] However, the Court agreed that the exception was satisfied as to the school officials’ conduct in allowing the two to ride home together:

[Two school officials] admit in their affidavits that they knew some sort of sexual conduct had occurred between [Jesse] and [Jonathan]. Despite this fact, they did not stop [Jesse] from taking the bus with [Jonathan]. At that time, [Jesse] was an identifiable victim of harassment by [Jonathan], and the risk was limited in geographic and temporal scope because [Jesse] and [Jonathan] were riding the bus together and the risk only lasted the duration of the bus ride home. Moreover, the risk of harm was arguably imminent because the dismissal bell had just sounded to release the students early because of a snowstorm, and the bus would presumably be leaving soon thereafter.

Thus, the Court denied the motion for summary judgment as to most of the counts in the complaint (it granted the motion as to one negligence per se count). Although the lawsuit was later withdrawn[8] by Jesse, this case nonetheless serves as another example of a student and/or parent surviving a motion for summary judgment in the face of defendants asserting governmental immunity protection.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions about any education law 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 (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Estrada v. Stamford Board of Education et al., Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford, Docket No. CT 06 5002313. 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3022 (November 19, 2010, Tobin, J.).

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

[3] Id.

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

[5] Id. at 275-76.

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

[7] See Footnote 1.

[8] http://civilinquiry.jud.ct.gov/CaseDetail/PublicCaseDetail.aspx?DocketNo=FSTCV065002313S

Connecticut Supreme Court Addresses the Identifiable Person-Imminent Harm Exception to Governmental Immunity

In a decision released just last week, the Supreme Court of Connecticut had an opportunity to address municipal immunity, and specifically, the “identifiable victim-imminent harm” exception to discretionary act immunity.

In Haynes v. City of Middletown, the plaintiff, acting on behalf of her plaintiff son, sought to recover damages for negligence from the City of Middletown after her son was pushed into a broken locker by a fellow high school student. He sustained personal injuries. In response to plaintiff’s complaint, the defendant city invoked a defense of governmental immunity.  In their response, the plaintiffs failed to plead any exceptions to the defendant’s claim of immunity. A jury found for the victim, however the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict on the ground of governmental immunity.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision to set aside the verdict, holding that the plaintiffs never made the identifiable victim-imminent harm argument to the defendant’s claim of municipal immunity.  The identifiable victim-imminent harm exception is one of three exceptions to discretionary act immunity that Connecticut courts have carved out.  Where defendants’ acts are discretionary, they may invoke governmental immunity, barring a plaintiff’s claim against the governmental entity.  However, the identifiable victim-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.

In the instant case, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision and remanded the case to the appellate court for consideration of the sole issue of the plaintiff’s failure to plead the identifiable victim-imminent harm exception.  The Supreme Court found that, because the Appellate Court didn’t hear full arguments on that specific issue, it was not in a position to decide the case on that issue.  Thus, the Supreme Court remanded the case on that one, sole ground.

Decisions like this serve as reminders that it is imperative to consult with attorneys who are well-versed in education law and able to effectively litigate this type of claim.  The identifiable victim-imminent harm exception is invoked in bullying and cyberbullying cases, when victims of bullying seek action against the school district.  If you have questions about bullying, cyberbullying, or education law, do not hesitate to contact Joseph Maya, Esq. in our Westport office, at either 203-221-3100, or at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

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).

Bullying Remains at Forefront of Education Law

Bullying Remains at Forefront of Education Law as One State Criminalizes Student-on-Teacher Bullying…

In an interesting article , author John Ross reported on a newly-enacted North Carolina law that criminalizes student-on-teacher cyberbullying, a less discussed but still pervasive bullying issue.  Students who use computers with the “intent to intimidate or torment” school employees can be subjected to a Class 2 misdemeanor under North Carolina’s new measure.  The law is the first in the nation to directly address student-on-teacher bullying.

Despite North Carolina being the first to criminalize such behavior, other states, including Connecticut, have addressed student-on-teacher bullying cases.  In a 2008 case, the Second Circuit considered an appeal in which the plaintiff, a student in Burlington, Connecticut, claimed that school administrators violated her First Amendment rights by preventing her from running for senior class secretary because of off-campus speech she engaged in in which she called school administrators derogatory names after they cancelled a school event that plaintiff was in charge of organizing.[1]

Alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights, plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction to void the election for Senior Class Secretary and order the school to hold a new election.  Both the district court and the appellate court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction, thereby upholding the school district’s punishment relating to plaintiff’s blog posts.[2]

The Second Circuit reconciled the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal holding in Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) (students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate) with the competing notion that “the constitutional rights of students in public school ‘are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings.’”[3] Ultimately, the Second Circuit, in an opinion in which now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred, based its argument on the holding of an earlier decision, which held that “a student may be disciplined for expressive conduct, even conduct occurring off school grounds, when this conduct ‘would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment,’ at least when it was similarly foreseeable that that the off-campus expression might also reach campus.”[4]

Concluding that it was “reasonably foreseeable that [plaintiff’s] posting would reach school property,”[5] the Second Circuit held that plaintiff failed to show that her First Amendment rights were violated when she was disqualified for running for a student government position.  The Court did note that its decision was narrow, leaving open the possibility that a more severe punishment by the school may have given rise to a constitutional violation.[6] That issue remains to come before the Second Circuit.

The attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. are experienced in education matters.  If you have any questions relating to education, bullying, or cyberbullying issues, do not hesitate to contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq. in our Westport, Fairfield County office, at either 203-221-3100 or JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Doninger v. Niehoff, 527 F.3d 41 (2d Cir. 2008).

[2] Id.

[3] Bethel Sch. Dist. No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 682 (1986).

[4] Doninger, 527 F.3d at 48, quoting Wisniewski v. Bd. Of Educ., 49 F.3d 34, 40 (2d Cir. 2007).

[5] Id. at 50.

[6] Id. at 53.

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.

Cyberbullying and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Cyberbullying

“Cyberbullying,” which has been defined by the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) as “similar to other types of bullying, except that it takes place online and through text messages sent to cell phones,” is a pervasive problem that has plagued schools since the rapid rise of social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter.  The anonymity of the Internet allows users to harass others with impunity, and many young users feel invincible while operating under the guise of pseudonyms and screen names.

Unfortunately, the behavior of cyberbullies, though demoralizing and painful to their victims, may not rise to criminal activity.  However, victims of bullying should be aware that there are other legal avenues.  Depending on the severity and length of the conduct, civil theories, such as the tort theory of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), may be a possible theory of relief.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

IIED requires a showing by a plaintiff (the victim of the bullying) that the bully intended to inflict emotional distress, that the conduct of the bully was extreme and outrageous, that the bully’s conduct was the cause of the victim’s distress, and that the emotional distress sustained by the victim of bullying was severe.  Because mere insults and threats have not been found to rise to the level of severe conduct, there is a high threshold that must be met to prevail on an IIED claim.

If you or your child has been a victim of cyberbullying, the attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. have extensive experience in education law and are prepared to render advice on school and bullying issues.  No student should have to face the humiliation and pain of peer torment.  If you are being cyberbullied, keep any emails, IMs, or other communications.

If you have any questions regarding cyberbulling, 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.

 

Growing Awareness Surrounding Bullying of Students with Disabilities in Fairfield County

If you have any questions regarding bullying of students with disabilities, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.

Bullying has gained the attention of the media over recent years, but despite the focused spotlight, bullying is rampant in our society.  Among the easiest targets are children with special needs.  They are, on average, at a greater risk to be bullied than their non-disabled counterparts.  This is in part because special education children make easy targets. It is often harder for children with disabilities to recognize which behaviors are socially appropriate and those that are not.

Many organizations are stepping up to the challenge of educating the community and parents on the complex issues surrounding bullying of students with disabilities. The Stratford Special Education Teacher and Parent Association recently held a presentation on “Bullying of Students with Disabilities.” The presentation focused on how to help schools avoid litigation stemming from the targeting of children with special education needs. The hope is to set up systems in schools that address bullying before it becomes a problem.  Interestingly, the presentation also focused on teaching parents how to work with the school system to effectively develop plans to prevent harassment of their children.  It is important that parents work with school administrators to develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that encourages students to learn, develop self-advocacy, and social and life skills necessary to reduce disability related harassment.

In addition to parents and school administrators working together to reduce and bring awareness to bullying and its drastic effects, it is also important to be familiar with the laws that protect children with disabilities.  At Maya Murphy, P.C., we have experience dealing with Education Law, harassment or bullying, Special Education Law, and discrimination.

By Leigh H. Ryan, Esq.

If you have any questions regarding bullying of students with disabilities, 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.

What You Need to Know About Your Child’s Education

One of the reasons that parents work so hard is to be able to provide a better life and a better future for their children. The bedrock of a bright future is a good education.  As a parent, it is important to understand your rights and obligations when it comes to your child’s education.

Adequate Education

As a parent, you are required to have your children enrolled in public school, unless the parent can show that the child is receiving equivalent instruction elsewhere. Under Connecticut law, the child must be “instructed in reading, writing, spelling, English grammar, geography, arithmetic and United States history and in citizenship, including a study of the town, state and federal governments.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-184.

School Accommodations

The local school board is required to provide school accommodations to every child, age five (5) or over and under twenty-one (21), with a free appropriate public education. This includes children with special needs. The law also provides for your child’s education to take place in the district in which you live.

Absences

The State of Connecticut has strict regulations concerning a child’s absence from school. Specifically, the State declares a child who has four (4) or more unexcused absences in a month or ten (10) or more unexcused absences during the school year as a “truant.” The designation of your child as a truant results in the activation of certain policies and procedures of the school board, including but not limited to, the notification of the parents, services and referrals to community organizations offering family support, meetings with the parents and school personnel, and possible notification to the Superior Court.  Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-198a. Habitual truants could even face arrest for failure to attend school. Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-200.

Open Choice

Connecticut law has established alternatives to traditional public school education. A parent can home school their children, as long as they comply with Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-184. A parent can choose to send their child to private school, as long as that private school conforms to Connecticut’s laws. But what many parents are not aware of is that Connecticut also offers charter, magnet and vocational schools, and the “open choice” program.  Given the number of opportunities available to parents and children in Connecticut, it is important to research the various options to find the best match for you and your child.

Discipline

The school has the right to discipline your child for breaking school rules. This could mean removing your child from the classroom, giving an in-school suspension, giving an out-of-school suspension, or even expelling your child from school. Prior to any suspension or removal, your child has the right to an informal hearing conducted by a school administrator. If the school is attempting to expel your client, there will be an expulsion hearing. You have a right to an attorney during these proceedings.

Medications

The school, prior to prescribing any medication to your child, must receive a written order from  an authorized prescriber, the written authorization of the child’s parent or guardian, and the written permission of the parent allowing communication between the prescriber and the school nurse.  Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-212a-2(b). The law also permits school districts to allow children to self-administer prescribed emergency medications, such as asthma inhalers, if the child has a verified chronic medical condition and is capable to self-administer.

Bullying

Bullying has become a pervasive problem within schools. State and Federal laws state that the school must investigate reports of bullying. The schools are obligated to meet with the children that are being bullied and whom are doing the bullying. If the schools fail to take certain steps to protect children from bullying, the school could be subject to civil liability. Therefore, if your child is being bullied, bring it to the attention of the schools so that they can attempt to remediate the situation.

Bullying is not just peer-on-peer. Recently, in Frank v. State of Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the Court upheld a hearing officer’s decision placing Mr. Frank’s name on the child abuse and neglect registry, for his bullying of one of his students. Consequently, as a parent you should be aware that bullying can take many forms, and can occur by teachers and other faculty members. 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 3085, J.D. of New Britain, Docket No. CV-10-6005213-S (2010).

School Records

A parent has the right to see their child’s school records. A school is required to provide you with a copy of your child records within 45 days (within 10 days if your child is receiving special education services).  The school also has to provide the records free of cost if you are unable to afford the copying fees.

The school is not allowed to share your child’s school records without your written permission. While they are allowed to share your child’s records with other teachers and staff within the school system (or outside the school system in the case of an emergency), generally, your child’s records are private.

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