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School Bullying Results in 800000 Verdict

The "L.W." case, in which a student was consistently bullied in school based upon sexual orientation but the school didn't stop it, has become black letter law in New Jersey. The decision was recent, only a few years back, but it certainly resulted in a lot of school districts "waking up" to the idea that bullying is the school district's "responsibility," and that it's not something to which a district ought turn a blind eye. When I first started doing employment and civil rights work, I...

The "L.W." case, in which a student was consistently bullied in school based upon sexual orientation but the school didn't stop it, has become black letter law in New Jersey.

The decision was recent, only a few years back, but it certainly resulted in a lot of school districts "waking up" to the idea that bullying is the school district's "responsibility," and that it's not something to which a district ought turn a blind eye.

When I first started doing employment and civil rights work, I vowed always to bring to the work that I do a common sense, blue collar grounding that emerges from the way I was raised (See my earliest blog entries for a bit of that). Having been raised in a working class Brooklyn family in the 70's, I had to deal with bullying personally and I had to watch it happen to others.

When a kid wasn't a strong athlete and didn't constantly act like he was prepared to fist fight, for example, he was called a "faggot" and every other synonym in the book.

Some families approved of that, and some didn't. Some were bigoted and thought it was hysterical that their children were growing up bigoted, too. I now see, as an adult and as a civil rights lawyer, what happens when this sort of mentality finds its way into the school place.

Kids' lives are ruined. Kids attempt suicide. Kids turn to drugs and other self-abusive behaviors. They don't feel comfortable talking about it with their families because it's so deeply humiliating, especially if their family is the type of family that uses racist or homophobic language itself. How can a kid who's being taunted for being gay (whether he's actually gay or thought or portrayed to be) tell his father about it, when his father uses homophobic language in the home, unaware that his son is being similarly victimized? How does that kid think the father's going to respond? Will the father change his tune and realize that bigotry of that type has become personal? Or will the father blame his son for not taking care of the problem on his own?

Today, schools profess a zero tolerance policy towards fighting. Back in my day, if a kid got out of line, you decked him. That took care of the problem and frankly, at least in Brooklyn, the school officials silently approved of that because sometimes, a kid just needs to get his block knocked off in order to get him to shut his mouth.

That's over now, as well it should be. As an adult, as a parent, and certainly as a lawyer, we can't have schools approving of a "handle the bully by hitting him" mentality. Which means the school districts have to act responsibly to end bullying. But what happens when they don't, in an age when taking care of the bully the old fashioned way is no longer an option?

It means that bullies now have a degree of immunity they've never really enjoyed before. Moreover, they have instruments they never had access to before: cell phones and the internet. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Tweeter (I can't count them any more) and any number of other future toys do and will allow bullies and their allies to passive-aggressively and anonymously - - anonymous means it's very hard to see the personal affect of your conduct in the eyes of your victim - - to bully others viciously and continuously. It's now a team sport, because it's so easy.

It's one thing to be called a name in the playground by your accuser, and to put a fist in his teeth. It's another thing to have 20 accusers who are all cutting and pasting all sorts of images on to your likeness for their Facebook pages and then calling attention to that for the entire school. The new bullies wouldn't have had been bullies 40 years ago, but it's easier now, because it can be done at a distance.

Show one whiff of vulnerability, and it's all over for you and there's really nothing you can do about it except to tell the school. What can the school do about it except tell the parents, and what can the parents do except scold their kids (sometimes) or subtly suggest that their kids are being victimized in their "free speech" rights (more often... "it's just kids being kids"...)?

In Michigan, a jury handed down an $800,000 verdict to a student who underwent years of bullying by his classmates. The school officials were aware and didn't do enough to stop it. I'm sure that the school officials disagree with the decision. I'm sure that they feel that there are practical limits on what they can accomplish. I'm sure that they feel that they were responsive enough. Perhaps they were, perhaps they weren't. I don't know what the facts of the case were. But New Jersey now recognizes these cases. We litigate these cases.

Of course, the schools have a special, enhanced duty to stop specifically bigoted harassment and bullying (as opposed to just general bullying without a bigoted taint) as a result of the L.W. decision. In essence, according to our Law Against Discrimination, students are entitled to the same protection as workers are in the work place, for the same reasons.

But you know what? Bullying has to "start stopping" in the home. People have to stop being bigoted. People have to just decide to get into the 21st century, get past the silly groupings into which we divide yourselves, get past things as unimportant as sexuality, religion (or atheism), national origin and ethnicity and get into being human. If more people do this, then more students will realize that there is no reason to bully students using these criteria.

Otherwise, we're going to have a lot more fists in the face, either in court or out.

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