Sadly, bullying and the consequences of bullying are something we see in the news headlines on any given day. It can be one of many factors which may lead to depression, poor school performance, suicide and violence toward others.
Frequently we hear from both parents and children who have been bullied and who are looking for some help and to find out what their legal options are.
Below are some basic facts about the current state of the Pennsylvania law, its limitations and what students and their families can do if faced with a bullying situation.
Whitney Hughes, Director of the Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service, frequently appears on the “Legal Briefs” segment of Pittsburgh Today Live on KDKA-TV. Following is a transcript from a KDKA appearance.
Currently, 46 states including Pennsylvania have anti-bullying statutes. These statutes range from very specific laws which contain definitions, requirements for detailed policies, recommended courses of action and mental health treatment for perpetrators and victims, to very basic policies which address the issue but provide very little guidance for schools as to how to implement an anti-bullying program or policies. Pennsylvania’s law tends to fall within the “basic” type of legislation. The law, enacted in 2007, requires schools to have written policies, made available to students, which address bullying and the persons to whom complaints should be made. It also defines bullying as:
An intentional electronic, written, verbal or physical act, or a series of acts:
(1) directed at another student or students;
(2) which occurs in a school setting;
(3) that is severe, persistent or pervasive; and
(4) that has the effect of doing any of the following:
(I) substantially interfering with a student’s education;
(II) creating a threatening environment; or
(III) substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school; and “school setting" shall mean in the school, on school grounds, in school vehicles, at a designated bus stop or at any activity sponsored, supervised or sanctioned by the school.
Interestingly enough, although the law is a good starting point, there are many issues it does NOT address – which could potentially lead to problems.
Some issues with the law:
There is no outright prohibition of bullying – just a requirement that school districts have a policy.
The law addresses an “intentional” “electronic” act but does not specifically address cyberbullying.
The law addresses electronic, verbal, written or physical acts, but does not address “relational” bullying such as excluding someone socially, spreading rumors, etc..
The law allows school districts to create policies which address conduct outside the school setting or school sanctioned activities but does not require it. Unfortunately, this is something we hear about more and more.
The law allows school districts to develop prevention and education programs but contains no requirement to do so.
The law contains no reporting requirements for districts to ensure that the policies are being followed and to track their effectiveness
In 2013 The PASS (Pennsylvania Safe Schools) Act was introduced to the Pennsylvania House. The Act attempts to expand the anti-bullying statute. Among other things, it seeks to:
Require educators to attend a minimum of 4 hours of bullying and cyberbullying prevention training per year;
Identify certain actual or perceived characteristics on which bullying may be based (ie; race, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental handicap, etc);
Specifically define cyberbullying;
Contain a reporting requirement for school districts and
Address conduct that occurs outside the school setting, but still interferes with the student’s ability to take advantage of the services offered by the school.
The bill does appear to have significant bipartisan support, but still must have a vote and then clear the Pennsylvania Senate before it could ever become effective. Bottom line- there’s still a long way to go.
What to do if Your Child is Being Bullied
First and foremost, always check the anti-bullying policy of your school district. While the Pennsylvania statute does not give a great deal of guidance, it is left up to the school districts to develop and implement their own policy, and some MAY be much more extensive. See what you are dealing with and then go from that point on. The district hopefully will have set out the person to whom the bullying complaints should be made and what the course of action is following the initial report.
Look, Talk and Listen – You MUST do all three. Watch your child to see if they are exhibiting signs of being bullied- they are quiet, withdrawn, upset after coming home from school or getting a phone call. Simply keep your eyes open. Talk to your child about what is going on and stress to them that this isn’t their fault. Listen to what they are saying- without judgment. Sometimes simply keeping quiet and allowing a child to talk will open the floodgates to a world of information you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Document what is happening. Keep a log of the incidents that have occurred, the times those incidents have been reported, and the school district’s response. If your child is being cyberbullied, log those events as well. Save text messages, Facebook posts, etc. to keep a trail of what has occurred.
If the child has been physically bullied, document any injuries and in addition to notifying the school - contact the police.
Keep in mind that there are certain types of bullying which fall under the definition of harassment which may be illegal under federal laws. Harassment based on race, gender or disability is prohibited under federal law. The City of Pittsburgh also prohibits harassment based on sexual orientation. As with anything else, document, document, document, and then notify the school of what is happening.
If the school is notified and the situation does not stop, contact an attorney to find out if taking legal action is appropriate.
The Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service can help you find an attorney equipped to handle this specific type of case. To speak with an attorney or for more information, call 412-261-5555 or click here.