It's time for West Virginia schools to live up to their legal obligations and take action to stop bullying.
This was the message sent by federal education officials to the state's K-12 schools and colleges in a recent letter. A federal government survey of West Virginia high school students found that 23 percent had been the victim of bullying in the last 12 months - one of the highest percentages of high schoolers in the country.
Federal anti-discrimination laws, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibit harassment based on race, religion, ethnicity, sex, color, national origin and disability. While federal law does not directly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, in some cases, the prohibition on discrimination based on sex will apply to the harassment of gay, lesbian and transgendered students. Like other public schools across the country, West Virginia schools are required to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws and prohibit these types of discrimination.
A 2009 sample survey found that nationally, nearly twenty percent of ninth through twelfth grade students reported being bullied on school property within the past year. While boys are more likely to be the victims of physical and verbal assaults, girls are more likely to be harassed psychologically and relationally. Younger students also are more likely to be bullied; one survey found that nearly 43 percent of sixth graders had reported being bullied by other students.
The increased attention on preventing bullying comes in the wake of multiple high profile cases in which victims of bullying committed suicide. These cases include the death of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi after his roommate released a video of him in an intimate situation with another male on the Internet and 15-year-old South Hadley, Massachusetts student Phoebe Prince, who took her own life after repeated bullying by classmates.
West Virginia's Anti-Bullying Laws
West Virginia adopted an anti-bullying law in 2001. The law prohibits harassment, intimidation and bullying, which is defined as "any intentional gesture, or any intentional written, verbal or physical act or threat" that a reasonable person should know will harm the student, damage his or her property or place him or her in reasonable fear of harm. The law also prohibits behavior that is "sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive in that it creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment" for the student (WVC Section 18-2C-2).
The law also requires each county school board to develop anti-bullying policies and to adopt procedures for students to report bullying and for the school to investigate the claims. These policies must be printed in student handbooks. The school boards also are encouraged to develop harassment educational programs for each grade level and for the teaching staff to help them recognize the behavior and understand the school's anti-bullying policy.
The anti-bullying prohibition applies to acts occurring not just on school property, but also at school-sponsored events. State law also requires teachers and other school staff who witness harassment or violence to report the acts to the school's investigator.
West Virginia's law is unique from the majority of other states' anti-bullying laws in that it focuses not just on developing procedures to investigate claims of harassment, but that it also focuses on the importance of appropriately punishing those who commit the bullying. While the school boards are given latitude to develop appropriate disciplinary action, some of the suggested punishments include warnings, suspensions, exclusion from school events and expulsion.
Understanding that students who report bullying behavior to school officials may be subjected to even worse harassment, West Virginia's anti-bullying law also directs the state's school boards to develop procedures for protecting victims of bullying.
Your Legal Options for School Bullying and Harassment
Even though West Virginia has one of the most comprehensive anti-bullying laws in the country, the law does little good if it is not enforced. And based upon the federal survey that found nearly one quarter of the state's high school students have reported being victims of harassment, it is clear that West Virginia's schools are not enforcing their anti-bullying policies.
If your child has been the victim of harassment at school, you may have several legal options available to you. - Criminal charges: if the harassment involved physical violence, then the matter should be reported to the police and criminal charges should be pursued. - School district liability: in some cases, you may have the right to file a lawsuit against the school district. Schools have a legal duty to provide a safe learning environment for children. When they fail to uphold this duty, they may be legally liable for any harm that results. For example, if you or your child reported the bullying behavior to the school, but school officials did nothing to stop the behavior, then the school district may be responsible for any harm caused to your child. - Civil lawsuit: you also may be able to file a civil claim against those responsible for bullying your child. If the children involved are minors, then the legal claim will be pursued against their parents or legal guardians.
It is important to find out the anti-bullying policy at your child's school and to file a complaint about the bullying with the proper authorities. In general, schools can avoid liability for behavior that they did not know about. By following the complaint procedure, you ensure that they have notice of the harassment and are given an opportunity to put an end to it.
For more information on your legal options following a school bullying incident, contact an experienced attorney today.
Article provided by Robinette Legal Group PLLC - Visit us at www.robinettelaw.com
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