As we embark on the beginning of another school year, some parents are dreading the possibility that their child may face bullying from other students. Parents seek always to protect their children from harm, but this is a situation where parents often feel powerless to intervene.
However, New York City education lawyers know anti-bullying efforts here in New York and across the country have resulted in better, more streamlined response to bullying.
The 2014-2015 school year marks the third since enactment of New York’s Dignity for All Students Act (NYDASA), and the second since a major amendment was made encompassing cyberbullying, how bullying investigations must be conducted and how school districts are required to respond.
The statute was recently cited in the March 2014 ruling in Simon v. Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District et al., where parents of a teen alleged the school district failed to respond appropriately to persistent bullying of their child by other students.
New York is now among 49 other states that have enacted anti-bullying laws. However, in practice, these statutes are challenging to assert in a civil case. In order to successfully pursue litigation on these grounds, parents’ claims must be well-documented, and the sustained physical injury and/or emotional distress substantial.
When the NYDASA was first passed, it required school districts to implement a curriculum that included instruction to teachers on how to support a school environment free of harassment and discrimination. Codes of conduct were to include provisions that barred these actions by any student or employee, and there were to be remedies for how schools should respond to these instances. Schools were also required to record material incidents of harassment and discrimination, and those reports were to be submitted annually to the state.
Starting in 2013, the law was updated to include “cyberbullying,” or virtual harassment through social media, email, messaging or other technology. Schools were deemed responsible for acting on reports of incidents that occurred off school property, so long as there was evidence the situation might foreseeably create risk of substantial disruption of the school environment. Additionally, the amendment established a chain of command, whereby the principal, superintendent or some other designee needs to receive the reports and lead or supervise a timely and thorough investigation. Also, when certain conduct crosses the threshold into criminal conduct, schools, under the law, are required to report such incidents to law enforcement.
This law has given merit to lawsuits that allege schools haven’t done enough to protect children from harassment. One recent example is the Simon case. Here, justices in Nassau County ruled the parents of a minor student would be allowed to proceed with their claim against the school district, asserting their daughter was bullied by two fellow students. The ruling was an important one because, as a matter of first impression, it was the first time the court weighed the issue of whether the NYDASA provides a basis for private right of action against school districts, and further, addresses the scope of the school’s obligation to respond to reports of student harassment when those students don’t attend public school.
According to court records, two students attending the defendant school district distributed video showing a young female engaged in a lewd act, and falsely asserted it was the minor female plaintiff, an eighth-grader. The girl had previously attended the same school as the other students, and was forced to change schools because she was so severely bullied. At the time the video was circulated, the girl was attending private school.
The parents later sued the school district where the alleged bullies attended, asserting officials had not responded appropriately to the reports under state law.
The school district argued the case should be dismissed because it owed no duty of care to the plaintiff under NYDASA because she attended a private school. The court ruled NYDASA is not limited to public school students in the state. The court further ruled the plaintiff had the right to bring the lawsuit.
This is just one example of the law in action.
As of this writing, there is no federal anti-bullying statute, though that may change as more legislators become acutely aware of the problem. A measure introduced by senators last year, the Bullying Prevention for School Safety Act, received bipartisan support and also the backing of President Barack Obama. Still, it did not pass. Lawmakers have vowed to introduce a similar measure in the next legislative session.
In the meantime, parents of victims suffering persistent bullying in New York should contact an experienced attorney to explore a legal response.
The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides education litigation representation in New York City, Long Island, Great Neck and throughout the area. Call 516-487-7375 or send us an e-mail.
Dignity for All Students Act, Effective July 1, 2013, New York State Education Department
More Blog Entries:
Establishing Liability in New York City School Injury Cases, Jan. 20, 2014, New York City Education Law Attorney Blog