Phoebe Prince was a fifteen-year old girl who had moved from Ireland to attend South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Instead of enjoying her teen years, however, she was for several months relentlessly tormented by classmates. Despite months of verbal and social media attacks by other students—she was called an “Irish slut” and “whore,” had her books routinely knocked out of her hands and received threatening text messages—the school failed to take action, even as Phoebe informed administrators about the bullying. On January 14, 2010, after a classmate threw a Red Bull can at her from a car while she was walking back from school, Phoebe hung herself in a stairwell.
Phoebe’s suicide stands as a tragic testament to the negative impact bullying may have on students. Connecticut, as other states, is not immune to such tragedies. In 2002, a Meriden high school student killed himself after enduring months of verbal and physical abuse. Even when bullying does not drive students to suicide, it may have other harmful effects. According to a recent survey, Connecticut high school students who admitted to being bullied are more likely to experience depression, sleep less, skip school and attempt suicide.
Fortunately, both Connecticut and the federal government have recognized the impact of bullying and have made genuine efforts to address the problem. While there are currently no federal anti-bullying laws, the U.S. Department of Education has, among other things, created a federal task force to elicit ideas from the public, held a bullying summit, and sent a “Dear Colleagues” letter reminding schools that they may be liable under federal civil rights laws for bullying among students.
For its part, Connecticut passed a sweeping anti-bullying law, which took effect on July 1, 2011, expanding school staff training, addressing cyber-bullying, devising statewide assessments, and delineating further responsibilities for schools. The General Assembly has outlined specific criteria and listed a number of actions that would qualify as bullying, including cyber-bullying. However, parents should not limit themselves to the language of the statute. They should consult the school handbook and the record of verified acts of bullying (described below) for more specific information.
What kind of actions qualify as bullying?
Starting July 1, 2011, the General Assembly redefined bullying as “the repeated use of a written, oral or electronic communication or physical act by one or more students directed at another student within the same school district which:
1) Physically or emotionally harms the student or damages that student’s property;
2) Places such student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself, or of damage to his or her property;
3) Creates a hostile school environment for that student;
4) Infringes on that student’s rights at school; or
5) Substantially disrupts the educational process or the orderly operation of the school. ”
Building on federal civil rights laws, the General Assembly has also clarified that bullying based on any of the following traits would also fall under the definition:
• Race or color
• National origin
• Sexual orientation
• Gender identity or expression
• Socioeconomic status
• Academic status
• Physical appearance
• Mental, physical, development or sensory disability
Perhaps most importantly, the General Assembly has honed in on cyber-bullying, which is “any act of bullying through the use of the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, cellular mobile telephone or other mobile electronic devices or any electronic communications.” Under the definition, the use of email, text messages, live web streams by a student or group of students to ridicule or humiliate another student would be considered cyber-bullying.
Nevertheless, parents should still consult the school’s bullying policy for more detail as to what behavior qualifies as bullying since districts and local boards may have modified the definition. Parents can usually find the policy in the school handbook or on the school website. If the policy is not available in the school publication or website, parents should ask for a copy of the policy, which the school is required to provide immediately upon request.
The local board also must establish a procedure for each school to maintain reports of bullying in the school and maintain a list of verified acts of bullying, which they also have to make available to parents. The list, at a minimum, should provide some details on each individual act. Regardless of the format, the school cannot include the names of any students involved in the action under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The federal act also forbids schools from informing parents about the consequences imposed upon the bullying child.
How can parents inform schools that their child is being bullied?
As part of a required safe school climate plan, the local or regional board of education must have a process in place for students to anonymously report to school employees acts of bullying. Under the statute, “school employees” include a teacher, substitute teacher, school administrator, school superintendent, guidance counselor, psychologist, social worker, nurse, physician, paraprofessional, or anyone who has regular contact with students through the performance of his or her duties. The board must notify parents annually about the process by which students can make such reports.
Because students are often and understandably scared to report these acts for fear of retaliation, the board must also provide a way for parents or guardians of the afflicted students to file written reports of suspected bullying. Moreover, any school employee who witnesses an act of bullying or receives word from a student of such an occurrence must notify the safe school climate specialist (who we will discuss later on in the section) or another school administrator if the climate specialist is not available, no later than the next school day after the bullying takes place. The school employee must file a written report within two days after the bullying incident.
To encourage people to report acts of bullying, the statute insulates school employees, students, and parents from any resulting lawsuits provided they follow the relevant provisions outlined in the statute and act in good faith. This immunity extends to local boards that are making good-faith efforts to implement a safe school climate plan or investigate bullying incidents. This immunity does not attach if their actions were reckless, willful, or wanton.
Before filing a bullying complaint, parents should consider meeting with administrators or teachers to discuss the bullying incident. Given the immediate and harmful impact that bullying has on a child, parents should involve the relevant school authorities as fully and early as possible. If parents and school officials cannot informally resolve the situation, parents should file a formal complaint. Prior to filing, parents should gather as much documentation as possible. Documents reflecting conversations that parents have had with their child and/or the bully, relevant written communications with school staff, messages passed around the Internet, accounts of previous attempts to address the situation, and expert evaluations from social workers, physicians, or counselors would assist parents in making a strong case on behalf of their child.
Parents should specifically cite to and make clear that they are invoking both the Connecticut anti-bullying law and the specific policy of the school district. It is important to spell out the bullying incident in as much factual detail as possible, including the names, dates, locations, nature and the length of time of the bullying. Finally, parents should address the complaint to the school principal, with copies to teachers, the local board, social workers and counselors.
Once parents file the complaint, it is the obligation of the school to ensure the safety of the student who is being bullied. To ensure that the school is working towards this goal, parents should consult frequently with the relevant school staff as to what steps it is taking to address the issue and assess the success of such efforts.
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