Bullying Laws

Motivated by high profile cases of hazing and harassment, 49 states have enacted laws to address school bullying. Legal Lad explains how these laws can help potential victims, and why some of them are controversial.

Adam Freedman
June 22, 2012

Bullying Laws

Today’s topic: Bullying Laws

And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Bullying in the News

On May 21, 2012, Rutgers undergrad Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in prison for a 2010 incident in which he used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, who later committed suicide. The Rutgers case has re-ignited interest in laws aimed at preventing school bullying. In this article, I’ll explain how these laws work.

What Are Bullying Laws?

As the name implies, bullying laws are meant to prevent threats or actual violence among students. A movement for such laws took off in 1999, after 13 people were gunned down at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The two students who carried out the rampage – and who also took their own lives -- were thought to be victims of bullying. Between 1999 and 2010, more than 120 bills were enacted by state legislatures to address bullying and related behaviors in schools. Today, every state except Montana has a law specifically dealing with school bullying.

Bullying Policies Differ from State to State

These state laws have many features in common, as well as certain differences. Almost all bullying laws, for example, leave the details up to individual school districts which are generally required to adopt their own anti-bullying policies. Among other things, such policies may require procedures to report bullying incidents, as well as training to help prevent bullying. 

Although most people feel like they know bullying when they see it, definitions of bullying vary from state to state. Most states do not require actual violence, but instead use terms like “intimidation” or “harassment” to describe the prohibited conduct. Some states limit “bullying” to conduct that occurs on school grounds, while others prohibit bullying off-campus if it creates a hostile school environment. Many state laws cover so-called “cyberbullying,” that is, bullying carried out over electronic media, such as social networking sites or email. 

According to some accounts, the toughest bullying law in the nation is the one enacted in New Jersey in 2011, partially in response to the Rutgers case I mentioned earlier. Under that law, schools must report every bullying incident to the State, and the State will grade each school based on bullying standards, policies, and incidents. Basically, any parent in New Jersey will be able to look up the “bullying grade” of his kid’s school.

Victims May be Entitled to Support Services

For victims, it is important to know the features of your state and local laws.  Many states require or encourage school districts to offer mental health and other support services to children targeted by bullies. And even if your state doesn’t require it, your local school district might offer such services in any event.

Other Legal Remedies May be Available

In addition to support services, victims of bullying may want to seek legal redress. In many states, the bullying law specifically safeguards the victim’s right to seek redress via criminal or civil law. For example, the victim might decide to press criminal charges against the perpetrator. Or the victim might sue the school if there is a basis to hold the school responsible for the bullying. Under federal civil rights law, for example, a school might be liable if school officials consciously ignore harassment that is so “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it deprives the victim of access to educational opportunities or benefits.” Of course, you’ll want to consult an attorney to determine whether any particular incident gives rise to a legal claim.

Controversial Aspects of Bullying Laws

Although nobody is in favor of bullying (except bullies, of course), some aspects of the anti-bullying laws have been criticized. For example, prohibitions against cyberbullying have come in for attack on free-speech grounds. As I described in an earlier article on legal protection for students and minors, the Supreme Court has held that students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Those rights generally include the freedom to say, post, or tweet what you want. Some predict that cyberbullying laws will eventually be tested by the Supreme Court. When that happens, you can be sure that I’ll come back with another article!

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Bully image courtesy of Shutterstock.