MORE CASES OF BULLYING END UP IN COURTS
By Natalie DiBlasio
The Carmichaels’ $20 million federal lawsuit against the Joshua Independent School District — filed in Dallas on March 28, the one-year anniversary of Jon’s death — is one of a growing number of civil court actions being taken against schools for allegedly ignoring bullying.
Bullying lawsuits are on the rise nationwide, says Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Boards Association. There are no studies the association knows of, he says, but “anecdotal evidence shows an obvious increase.”
The lawsuits are increasing for several reasons, including increased awareness, new standards and more experts in the legal community, says David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center.
“People are more likely to know about bullying and feel that they have to report it,” he says.
Carmichael family attorney Martin J. Cirkielsays he has processed 60 to 70 cases about bullying in the past two years.
“Every single parent comes to us for the same reason,” he says. “They want to make sure what happened to their child doesn’t happen to someone else.”
Jacquelyn Goss, spokeswoman for the Point Pleasant Borough School District in New Jersey, where one of the nation’s toughest bully laws went into effect Sept. 1, says the lawsuits are detrimental to education. “School funding is in crisis, and if you are spending any of your discretionary money on lawsuits, that’s money that isn’t going into education,” she says.
The Carmichael lawsuit alleges that staff and students were aware of multiple acts of bullying, including incidents in which their son was thrown into a trash can, had his head flushed in a toilet and — shortly before his death — was stripped nude, tied up and again placed into a trash can. The lawsuit states a tape of the latter event was posted on YouTube, then taken down “at the direction of an unknown staff member, who also failed to report the incident.”
“I am out to protect the children,” Tami Carmichael says. “There do not need to be any more deaths where children have to take their lives just because they are afraid to go on with their life. The schools are supposed to be a safe haven. They are supposed to protect and educate.”
Calls to Ray Dane, superintendent of the Joshua Independent School District, and attorney Cynthia Hill were not returned.
In Columbia, Tenn., two mothers each were awarded $100,000 in a lawsuit against the Wayne County schools in June. The women said their sons were humiliated in a locker room at Waynesboro Middle School when they joined the boys’ basketball team as seventh-graders in 2008.
Attorney John Schwalb, who defended the Wayne County schools, says he has seen an increase in lawsuits in the past three years.
“Bullying has existed since schools have been around,” Schwalb says, but after the 1999 mass shooting by two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., “there was a lot more research to get teachers and administration aware of bullying.”
Saben Littlefield, education and statewide field manager for Outright Vermont, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth and advocacy organization, says schools need to compensate for students who do not fully understand the effect bullying can have.
“If a school employee witnesses a behavior that is problematic and makes a conscious decision not to address it, it becomes the school’s problem,” Littlefield says.
Among recent lawsuits:
- The National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Faegre & Benson law firm filed a lawsuit on July 21, challenging anti-gay harassment in schools within the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota. The case is “currently in mediation,” says Brett Johnson, spokesman for the district.
- The family of a Howard County, Md., student filed a $10 million federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against several school officials in January, claiming administrators failed to protect the student from bullying that led to his suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. District spokeswoman Patti Caplan says a motion to dismiss has been filed.
Irene van der Zande, executive director and co-founder of Kidpower, an international nonprofit that teaches child safety education, says the lawsuits show that parents are engaged.
Kidpower prepares adults to address school bullying through skills-based training and publications, she says. “Our ultimate goal is to work together to create cultures of caring, respect and safety for everyone, everywhere,” she says.