Category Student/Enrollment Issues
Title Dealing with Bullying Activity
Author/s John Cooley, Attorney

Dealing with Bullying Activity

Prepared by attorney John L. Cooley, WootenHart PLC, Roanoke, VA

Q. Our school occasionally experiences problems with a student who is not presenting a direct threat of violence, but who intimidates or otherwise bullies other students. Through chapel programs and in the classroom, we have attempted to change students' behavior by emphasizing the importance of acting Christianly toward others and not teasing, intimidating, or otherwise bullying. While this has been somewhat effective, we still face the problem. How should we handle this legally?

A. Regardless of the environment, students frequently tease other students who are different or younger. As your question indicates, there is a clear spiritual relationship here, and students should respond to a positive Christian environment. However, when they do not, the school does need to take a proactive stance.

The school has a duty to control the environment. If the school is aware of students who through teasing, intimidation, or bullying are creating emotional stress or an unsafe environment for other students, the school could be liable. If a student who is a bully or otherwise a problem child injures another student, and the school is aware of past similar behavior and takes no action to remove the problem child from the school, the school could face liability.

It is my suggestion that the school establish a policy dealing with incidents of teasing, bullying, or intimidation. This policy should clearly define what constitutes such behavior and the actions the school will take as a result. The policy should examine the level of maturity of the student and whether or not they are capable of understanding the significance of their behavior. Thus, the policy would need to allow for some difference between a first-grader who teases another student as opposed to the actions of a middle school or high school student. While some form of discipline would be appropriate in the younger student's case, this should be less restrictive and more designed to educate the student as to the inappropriateness of the conduct. The policy should also give examples of inappropriate behavior. For example, persistent tormenting, utilizing habitually cruel or overbearing comments, making fun of or spreading rumors, mocking, belittling, or encouraging exclusion and teasing. I also suggest that the policy allow for progressive discipline; that is, a day's suspension, three-day suspension, and then expulsion. A safe environment requires not only the elimination of threats of violence or weapons, but also requires respect and support for all the school's students.

LLU 12.2

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