The tragedy of a 12 year old New Jersey student severely injured from bullying and recent $4.2 million settlement payment by the school district highlight the need for continuous review and vigorous enforcement of school district policy relating to bullying.
The safe schools provisions of the Pennsylvania School Code mandate every school district have in place a policy relating to bullying that defines bullying, delineates disciplinary consequences, and addresses school district procedures for dealing with bullying.
Under the law, bullying is defined as intentional electronic, written, verbal or physical act that: (1) is directed at another student or students; (2) occurs in a school setting; (3) is severe, persistent or pervasive; and (4) has the effect of doing any of the following: (i) substantially interfering with a student’s education; (ii) creating a threatening environment; or (iii) substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.
Very importantly, although the definition of bullying refers to acts that occur in a school setting, the law expressly authorizes a school entity to define bullying to encompass acts that occur outside of a school setting.
School entities are required to take multiple steps to publicize the bullying policy, including posting on its internet website, in every classroom, and at a prominent location within every school building where notices are usually posted. In addition, schools are required to affirmatively review the policy with students at least once each year.
Schools are required to review the policy at least every three years, and annually provide the Office of Safe Schools with a copy of the policy, including information related to the school’s bullying prevention, intervention, and education programs.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights also takes a role in enforcing bullying prevention steps. In a 2010 “Dear Colleague Letter,” OCR warned that school districts that fail to appropriately identify, thwart, and remedy bullying and harassment risk violating federal civil rights laws and losing federal funds.
We know that all school districts clearly understand the seriousness of bullying, and we applaud their intensive focus on anti-bullying policies in recent years.
The New Jersey tragedy and related legal settlement highlight the importance of continued focus. Twelve year old Sawyer Rosenstein had been a bullying victim and had sent multiple emails to school officials concerning the bullying. Shortly thereafter, a bully punched him so severely that he was left paralyzed, and at times near death from complications of his condition. The Rosensteins sued the school board and administrators, claiming school officials knew or should have known the attackers violent tendencies – and took inadequate prevention steps. They claimed the school district had a written policy – but it was not appropriately implemented and followed – in effect, a policy in name only.
Of course, the most important point is the tragedy of the student’s injury. However, it is also notable that the school district through its insurance carriers paid a $4.2 million settlement.
Bottom line: We urge all school districts to review their policy relating to bullying – and assure aggressive implementation.
We hope you find this issue of KKAL’s Education Law Watch helpful and informative. Please understand that the Law Watch is designed to provide information about current developments and required actions. It does not constitute legal advice, and school districts should consult a lawyer knowledgeable in this area of the law prior to taking specific actions on the issues addressed.
If you have any questions regarding any education law matter, including the issues discussed in this newsletter, please do not hesitate to contact us at 717/392-1100, or email us at the following addresses:
KEGEL KELIN ALMY & LORD LLP
Education Law Group
Clarence C. Kegel, Jr. email@example.com
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Rhonda F. Lord firstname.lastname@example.org
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Jason T. Confair email@example.com
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Kegel Kelin Almy & Lord LLP is a regional law firm with offices in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. KKAL is solicitor and general counsel to 17 school districts and joint school systems – and bond counsel, finance counsel, or special joint counsel to many others in Central and Eastern Pennsylvania. In addition, KKAL frequently serves Pennsylvania school districts for unusual and challenging problems, projects, or litigation.