Education and Legal Action Can Remedy School Bullying, Panelists Say
As many as nine out of 10 LGBT teens reported being bullied within the past year because of their sexual orientation, panelists noted during a 2012 ABA Section of Litigation Annual Meeting program titled “Leave My Child Alone, or I’ll …What? Using the Law to Stand Up to Bullies.”
The effects of emotionally intimidating and violent behavior on a young person can lead to lower self-esteem, loneliness, poor social adjustment, anxiety, depression or even suicide, panelists said.
A significant problem may stem from the adults who sit by on the sidelines.
“There are administrators and teachers who do not get it—how threatened [victims] are, day in and day out,” said Christopher Clark of Lambda Legal, an advocacy group that focuses on the civil rights of the LGBT community. [Through inaction], these adults are bullying our youth.”
Many schools and communities have access to readily available solutions to these problems: behavior support plans, education on restorative practices, immediate responses to incidents and providing all-around support for victims, bullies and bystanders. But what happens when a school system doesn’t provide such support?
Clark recalls a 14-year-old client named Joseph who had been dealing with the effects of bullying for at least six years. In third grade, he endured a classmate’s verbal bullying and homophobic name calling that went well beyond the appropriate vocabulary of an 8-year-old. In fourth grade, the boy was physically abused by the same person.
In fifth grade, Clark said, Joseph was thrown down a flight of stairs. He started to skip school regularly, making himself sick in the mornings in order to stay home. Finally, in eighth grade, the bully gave him a concussion that was so intense he can’t remember the incident to this day.
After multiple conversations with school administrators, Joseph’s parents demanded to know what the school was going to do about the problem–particularly about the bully constantly calling him “gay.” The administrators responded: “If it looks like a duck, and it talks like a duck….”
Chicago lawyer Anthony Scariano, who represents children in students’ rights matters, said a solution to bullying is to educate students, teachers and administrators. School districts should turn any bullying incident into a teachable moment, he said. For example, they can offer communication and intervention between all parties involved, and they can educate all students on the effects of bullying, he said.
But in cases where school administrators or teachers refuse to stop or even add to the bullying, Clark said, seeking assistance from an organization like Lamda Legal may be the right move. Scariano believes that filing a complaint through the Office of Civil Rights can be effective.
Panelists noted that everyone has a right to a happy childhood, and bullying can ruin a child’s entire life. A school that neglects to take action when students are being harassed is possibly in violation of state and federal civil rights laws, they pointed out.