Sad news recently came out of Folsom, California, where it has been reported that a 12 year old boy name Ronin Shimizu committed suicide. While any such news would be upsetting, Ronin's fact pattern is one that we are all too familiar with as we regularly litigate school bullying cases. Apparently, Ronin's greatest crime was that he wanted to be and loved performing as a cheerleader for his middle school. As the only male cheerleader on the team, Ronin was relentlessly teased, bullied and harassed. Other students called him "gay" and hurled other slurs in his direction. Harassment at the school became so overwhelming that Ronin withdrew and went on homebound instruction prior to his suicide.
Not surprisingly a spokesperson for the school district confirmed that the family reported the bullying on more than one occasion and that the incidents had been "handled." Apparently they had not been handled well.
Unfortunately, we see this fact pattern all too often and hear about it in the news. A child is relentlessly tormented at school, the parents complain, the harassment continues, the parents complain again, the school says "we've got this," and finally the parents are left with no choice but to remove their child from the school. That removal, which is typically the best option at that point, leaves a child home, separated from his peers, and essentially punishes him for being the victim of harassment. And if I were the child's parent, I would do the exact same thing.
Harassment takes many forms. The harassment which Ronin was exposed to was based on what the law calls "gender stereotype." Gender stereotype discrimination is exactly what it sounds like, it is discrimination that is based upon stereotypes held about males and females. In the case of Ronin, his peers thought that he was not "man enough" since he was acting as a cheerleader and as a result they subjected him to harassment. There is also arguably under the law a claim for sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation harassment. All of these forms of harassment are recognized by both federal law and New Jersey state law.
Harassment and the effects of harassment continue to grow worse. Fifty years ago if a child was being taunted at school, when the school day ended he went home to the safety and comfort of his family. Now, there is a never ending cycle of harassment which includes verbal and physical harassment at school, text messages, and cyberbullying via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and whatever social media comes next. The harassment is not only greater in volume but each incident of harassment is magnified and repeated each time it is "liked" or otherwise shared on social media to a larger audience.
In New Jersey, schools have an obligation to provide students with a harassment free environment. Those schools must produce policies meant to deter and prevent harassment, intimidation and bullying, conduct trainings for students (and staff) so that they understand the policy and sharply respond to any allegations, and if they learn of such allegations to take appropriate remedial action. If the school does not do any of these things, they may be liable for the results of harassment.
So, what should a parent or guardian do if they think their child is being harassed?
- Document, document, document. Put it in writing. All of your reports/complaints should be via mail or other writing of which you retain a copy. The school will deny receipt later. If you have only done it verbally, it will be your word against them. If you communicate verbally, send a subsequent email confirming the conversation.
- Always remain calm. Schools almost universally attempt to defend these claims by stating that parents are raving lunatics and exaggerating the events.
- Take it up the chain. Start with the Guidance Counselor or Anti-bullying Coordinator, and if you are not satisfied with the response go to the Vice Principal, Principal, Assistant Superintendent and Superintendent. All of these individuals have an obligation to respond to allegations of discrimination and bullying.
- Insist on a response. While the school will not tell you what discipline they issued to another student, demand to know the result of the investigation. If the investigation fails to substantiate the complaint, consider your appeal rights to the local Board of Education or Department of Education.
- Consult with a lawyer with expertise in school bullying. He or she may be able to guide you and help you frame issues the way that gets you the best possible response.
- Consider involving your family doctor early. It is often difficult to consider that a young person may have mental health issues. However, a parent cannot unilaterally pull their child out of school, but if a doctor thinks that it is a medical/psychiatric risk, it can be done.
Hopefully you and your children will never need the above advice. Sadly, someone you know may.