Are Schools Liable for Bullying Violence Against Students?

Are Schools Liable for Bullying Violence Against Students?Bullying is a serious topic that goes beyond the law and has an impact on lives that often cannot be repaired. Our society cannot function in the face of bullying, and bullying can have an effect on children that often can endure beyond the physical trauma.

We tend to think of bullying as a matter of “child on child,” that is, a private matter between a bully and a victim, and perhaps, the parents of both parties. We do not usually think that any third party could be responsible for bullying, or that the legal system would have any role in its prevention. But in fact, there are circumstances in which a bullying victim may have a legal remedy against a bully, and in which others may have a legal obligation to recognize and prevent it from occurring.

Lawsuit Against High School for Post-Bullying Attack

A lawsuit has recently been filed against Deerfield Beach High School over the beating of a girl that occurred off school grounds. The girl was ambushed, and the beating was captured on video and became viral.

What does the school have to do with a beating that occurred off campus? The victim says that she informed school officials that she was being bullied by the attackers in school, and that she had asked the school for help. She says she made numerous reports about the bullies, but all the school did was issue a written report of the threats and of the victim’s concerns.

On the day of the incident, the victim says she again told school officials that she feared being attacked. School officials allegedly drove her a few blocks away from the school in a golf cart, and dropped her off, where she was attacked shortly afterward.

The Duty to Protect

There is no overriding legal duty for all of us to prevent someone from being bullied (although ethically and morally, we should do so). Rather, the legal duty, and thus legal liability to avoid bullying starts with the idea that a school is a safeguard for its children. When kids are in school, the school must act as a “substitute parent,” protecting children to the extent reasonably possible from danger or harm.

Notably, the attorney for the victim emphasizes that the victim had made the school aware on multiple occasions of threats against the victim and is alleging that bullying in general has been a chronic problem at the school that it has done little or nothing to remedy.

Every establishment has a legal duty to protect people from known dangers, to the extent possible. Just as a grocery store would have an obligation to clean a spill it was aware of before someone slipped on it, so too does a school have an obligation to take measures to try to protect students from violence at the hands of other students, when the potential for such violence is made known to the school, as it allegedly was here.

In fact, other schools nationally have been sued, and in some cases settled, lawsuits that alleged a failure to recognize and prevent bullying. In one instance, a mother informed the school that her child was being bullied, and requested that the child not be permitted to be in recess for a period of time after the child had a surgery. The school ignored the request, and the child was bullied, leading to a second surgery.

Location of Attack is not Determinative

The fact that the attack that led to the lawsuit against Deerfield Beach High was actually off-premises will likely be used as a defense by the school, but may not be persuasive. Although it is a relevant fact that a jury will be able to consider, the location of the attack is not determinative. The victim is alleging that the attack could have been prevented or avoided, but was not, by school officials at school. Thus, the liability allegedly occurred by the school’s failures, which allowed or led to the attack away from the school.

Put another way, the school’s obligation to its children does not end at the schoolhouse door. A school cannot just ignore a problem and allow it to fester off-campus to avoid liability.

Concerns Must be Reported

In many cases, bullying victims may feel that reporting bullying concerns will be met with deaf ears, or that the school will do little or nothing to address the victim’s concerns. Sadly, this may be true, but it does not mean that concerns should not be voiced.

The keystone of most successful cases is knowledge. In most every successful case, the victim (or parents) have reported threats, or concerns of violence, to school officials. Thus, even if a victim does not think anything will be done, reporting concerns is a vital way to hold school officials responsible should an incident occur. Threats should be reported in as specific a manner as possible.

Without that knowledge, a pattern and practice of bullying may well be seen as a random and unpredictable, and thus unpreventable accident, that the school cannot be held responsible for.

If your child is injured while in school or as the result of something school officials did or did not do, you may have a legal remedy. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your case.