As much as educators try to eliminate bullying and harassment within a school community, when some individuals believe a child has been victimized, they may make the decision to find solace in the courtroom through litigation. Strong emotions drive these decisions, and educators must remain vigilant.
The number of school organizations and individual staff members litigated as a result of bullying is relatively small; however, when it happens it is frustrating, expensive, and, unfortunately, newsworthy. With that mind, the following strategies may reduce the chance of a lawsuit or help protect educators from an adverse legal outcome.
Train all staff members. Update certificated personnel and support staff members annually about statistics, reporting procedures, and expectations. Discuss from the perspective of board policy, the student code of conduct, and the recently released definition by the Center for Disease Control.
Educate students and parents. Information is power, and the more everyone understands the problem and issues, the better prepared they will be to prevent and appropriately intervene in bullying incidents. Include reporting procedures in the student code of conduct and make certain teachers review the information with all students. Make use of the school and district websites to help educate the entire school community.
Investigate all complaints. It is true that some things labeled as bullying are more closely aligned to normal peer conflict; however, don’t categorize any complaint or student referral without thoroughly reviewing all the facts.
Use surveys. Written surveys for parents, students, and staff members can provide important information and feedback. Do not underestimate the value of giving those within a school community the opportunity to anonymously report their feelings and perceptions.
Use written plans for supervision. Develop written plans for supervising classrooms, hallways, restrooms, and other areas on campus. Consider the information provided by the surveys, and keep the plans fluid: review and revise them as needed during the school year.
Communicate with parents. When a concern is brought to the attention of school personnel, keep parents apprised of the investigation. Keep them up to date with information, and remind them that their concerns were taken seriously.
Monitor the school climate. Place bullying and harassment as an informational item on staff meeting agendas. Share where and how many incidents have occurred, and give staff members the opportunity to ask questions and share their thoughts and concerns.
Notify law enforcement of criminal behavior. Some acts of bullying and harassment are against the law, and the parameters of crimes involving cyber-bullying are continuing to evolve. Remind staff members they have a duty to report bullying because of administrative expectations, but a report to law enforcement officials may also be mandatory. If in doubt, make the call and allow local officials to provide guidance.
Document and maintain records. Although everyone understands the importance of documentation, it never hurts to remind the staff about record keeping. Memos, agendas from faculty meetings, handouts from professional development sessions, investigatory reports, parent contacts, e-mails become very important as educators try to reconstruct a series of events. At the end of a school year, some records may be purged; however, written records of bullying or harassment should be kept for more than one year. Some lawsuits may be filed years after the alleged harassment occurred, so be sure to keep complete records.
Establish written reporting procedures. The procedures should include how to report, forms for reporting, and the chain of command for reporting bullying and harassment. Include these guidelines in a teacher or employee handbook, and remind all staff members of administrative expectations periodically during the school year. Reports should always indicate who was notified about an incident and when and how notification was made.
Be familiar with state statutes, case law, and federal guidelines. Bullying is a hot-button topic, and many state legislatures are modifying and strengthening state statutes. If necessary, check with the school district’s legal counsel to ensure that the information you share with staff members and stakeholders is completely accurate.
Whether the incidents of bullying and harassment are increasing, decreasing, or remaining stable, educators must remain alert. When lawsuits are filed, the legal proceedings are extremely stressful for all involved, and an educator’s ability to anticipate, prepare, and investigate with due diligence may make the difference between a positive or negative outcome.