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Mississippi Lawyer Blog

Using Federal Law to Stand Up to School Bullies in Mississippi

bully.jpgAs summer winds down and the start of yet another school year is around the corner, I thought it would be a good idea to blog about school bullying and what can be done to protect your child. Bullying in school is nothing new. I can vividly remember an ABC Afternoon Special entitled "Psst Hammerman's After You!" in which a smaller student was being bullied by a larger student. (As an aside, it seems like my generation who went to school from the mid 70's through mid 80's learned all of our valuable life lessons from ABC's Afternoon Specials. We learned about sex, drugs, divorce, you name it. Our parents got off easy. Where are the Afternoon Specials now that I'm a Dad!. I digress). In the end, the smaller student stands up to Hammerman, gets his nose bloodied but earns the respect of the bully and is left alone. Well, we all know that doesn't happen in real life.

Recently the nation has been besieged by horrible stories of bullying, some of which end tragically. Take the lesbian student in Mississippi, Destin, who was allegedly bullied by not only the students but teachers and faculty as well. Destin ended up leaving school. My heart dropped when I read the story of beautiful little Phoebe Prince who took her own life after being constantly bullied by "mean girls" at school. Reportedly the school's teachers and administration was well aware of the bullying but did not take steps to end it.

There are other stories. You may have even been bullied as a kid. I know I was. I talk to my son about it as well. But what can we as parents do if our child is being bullied?

The first thing you need to do is recognize the difference between simple teasing and bullying. As we all know, children (and adults) will tease one another from time to time. In the 80's if you were a guy and didn't wear a Member's Only jacket with a Polo or Izod shirt underneath, Levi's (or similarly "cool" jeans") and Addidas/Fila/Nikes/Converse/Reeboks then you were opening yourself up to teasing. I'll never forget when my Mom bought me a "Braggin' Dragon" shirt. Dang thing had a freakin' dragon breathing fire right where the Izod alligator normally resided. You try wearing that around my school and think you won't get teased a little.

As a parent, we don't like anyone messing with our kid but we need to teach our kids to deal with something like fashion faux paux on their own.

Mississippi enacted an "Anti Bullying" law in 2010. In fact, every state except Montana now has similar legislation. Bullying is defined by Mississippi law (37-11-67) as "any pattern of gestures or written, electronic or verbal communications, or any physical act or any threatening communication, or any act reasonably perceived as being motivated by any actual or perceived differentiating characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, or on a school bus, and that:

(a) Places a student or school employee in actual and reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property; or
(b) Creates or is certain to create a hostile environment by substantially interfering with or impairing a student's educational performance, opportunities or benefits. For purposes of this section, "hostile environment" means that the victim subjectively views the conduct as bullying or harassing behavior and the conduct is objectively severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would agree that it is bullying or harassing behavior."

If you fee that your child is being bullied to the extent they are in danger of physical harm then you need to act ASAP. You obviously need to address the teacher(s) but the most important persons to advise are the Principle (or whomever is over students) and the Superintendent. I would suggest setting up a meeting and also sending a follow up letter expressing your concerns. Much of today's bullying is done electronically or on social media. Be sure to save these items so that you can share them with the school.

Under State law, schools are now required to have training and policies designed to prevent bullying. However, we are finding that the policies may be there but the implementation of those policies is lacking as is the training. So what you find are stories like Destiny and Phoebe, children who just wanted to go to school and get and education but were instead subjected to bullying which no one would stop.

What can you do if the bullying persists? You can file a lawsuit. A school that fails to respond appropriately to harassment of students based on a "protected class" (race, sex, national origin) may be violating one or more civil rights laws enforced by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, including:

Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

In other words, school districts can be liable under the law if they ignore severe harassment that prevents a student from getting an education.

Obviously filing a lawsuit is an extreme measure but some schools are slow to respond or don't respond. They need to be held accountable when they are put on notice that one of their students is being subjected to bullying and they do nothing to help.

I hope that your child has an enjoyable school experience this year. It is my sincere hope that none of you have to deal with school bullying like Destin and Phoebe did. However, if you do have a problem please contact Chuck Mullins at Coxwell & Associates. You can read more about me on our website.

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