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Placing the Blame

Leesa M. Poag, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

After the death of their eight-year-old son earlier this year, two parents in Ohio have filed a lawsuit against Cincinnati Public Schools. The child hanged himself with a necktie from his bunk bed, an act that his parents claim was a result of bullying he suffered at his elementary school.  The parents claim that the child was repeatedly bullied at his school, as were several of his fellow classmates.

This is, unfortunately, not the first such lawsuit to arise over the issue of school bullying.  As discussions surrounding bullying are becoming more prominent in our society today, so are parents seeking to recover damages as a result. In 1999, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of school liability in bullying cases.  In the case of Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that damages were recoverable from a school board in bullying cases, but only if the Plaintiff proves that the school was deliberately indifferent to the bullying.  The Court held that a Plaintiff must show that the harassment was so severe and pervasive that it effectively barred the child from access to educational opportunities. This standard creates an extremely high bar for a plaintiff to meet in a bullying case.

Though understandable that parents are distraught after the death of a child, especially when that child has intentionally taken their own life, placing the blame on the school may be unfair.  While a school certainly has the responsibility of creating a safe learning environment for its students, the sheer ratio of faculty to students makes it impossible for the school to be aware of every incident of bullying that occurs with its students.  Most would agree that bullying typically does not incur in front of teachers or faculty, and often isn’t reported to them.  As such, schools often are not aware that the bullying is even taking place.

Like many others, the current situation presents more questions than answers. Were the child’s parents aware of the bullying prior to the suicide?  If so, did they discuss what was happening with the child?  With the school?  And with a child so young, how was he even aware of suicide, or left unsupervised long enough to hang himself?

While many parents who have filed these lawsuits claim that there objective is to bring awareness to school bullying and its effects, lawsuits may actually harm that objective, not help.  I doubt anyone would disagree that public schools are working with extremely limited financial resources as is.  These lawsuits further exacerbate that problem.  Large awards in these lawsuits can take away funds from schools that could be used for anti-bullying programs.

Parents need to play a role in stopping their children from being bullied at school.  Parents who are involved with the school and in contact with the child’s teacher are much more likely to be aware of any issues that are happening in the classroom than those parents who are not involved.  Parents can also have regular conversations with their children about bullying, and what they should do if they are being bullied or see a classmate being bullied.