What is the line between schoolyard bully and criminal? A Colorado teen is about to find out after police recommended assault charges for a 15-year-old who allegedly beat up a girl in the school lunch room.
The mother of the bullied girl also obtained a restraining order against the accused attacker, while criticizing the school for not doing enough to protect her daughter.
“It wasn’t anyone being ignorant of the situation. It was the school just not doing their job,” the mother, Carrie Thrall, told a local television station. “Anyone that infringes on anybody else’s right to an education is not permitted to be there and she clearly infringed on my daughter’s right to an education.”
The news comes as school districts around the country are increasingly focused on bullying and how to mitigate or prevent it. Discipline frequently spills out of the school and into the courthouse as a number of recent cases attest:
A 12-year-old Philadelphia-area boy died this week after suffering seizures and being placed in a medically-induced coma after he was punched at school. No charges were filed, although that could change following Bailey O’Neill’s death.
Police are recommending harassment, battery and disorderly conduct charges against a 12-year-old in Wisconsin following lewd acts directed at another student on a school bus.
Three track athletes at Bronx High School of Science were arrested last week and charged with forcible touching, assault, hazing and harassment for making sexual contact threats against a teammate.
A survey in 2010 found that 17 percent of students reported being bullied at least twice a month, but comprehensive solutions prove elusive.
Every state except Montana has some type of bullying legislation in place; however, critics contend that the laws often do not go far enough. Colorado statute, for example, mandates that schools address bullying and institute policies to create safe environments, but does not specify how that should be done.
“There’s really nothing per se that says if you bully, this is exactly what’s going to happen to you,” says Igor Raykin, an attorney at the Denver-area Raykin Law Firm. “That’s part of the problem.”
The criminal remedies for bullying are more structured, if not always applicable in all circumstances. Colorado does have a statute that addresses “interference with staff, faculty, or students of educational institutions” and makes it a misdemeanor to inhibit freedom of movement in a school or impede the pursuit of educational activities.
“If you have a kid afraid to go to class or afraid to go to school in general, because of a kid or group of kids threatening or intimidating or physically assaulting, that could potentially leave perpetrators subject to penalties,” says Raykin, a former teacher whose legal specialties include education law.
Other criminal charges could run the gamut depending on the situation, from assault, weapons charges, stalking, harassment, even false imprisonment or confinement in severe cases. Attacks or intimidation based on bias could run afoul of state and federal hate crime laws.
“The law does not stop at the school doors,” the attorney says. “Whatever you’re prohibited from doing in general society, you’re also prohibited from doing in school.”
Civil penalties could be another option if bullies go unchecked by teachers or school administrators.
Under certain circumstances, claims could be brought against public officials, including educators, as a civil rights action under section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.
“If a school official is creating a dangerous situation and five circumstances are proven, it’s possible to recover from the school,” Raykin says. The circumstances specify that:
The claimant is a member of a specifically defined group
The claimant is subject to serious risk or immediate harm
The risk is obvious or known
The defendant acted in reckless conscious disregard of the risk
The conduct viewed in total is something that shocks the conscience
“What have the school officials done to protect the student when they’ve been made aware of some kind of problem?” says Raykin. “If the bully is repeatedly threatening someone or has actually physically acted out, and the school officials have done nothing, there’s a potential cause of action here.”
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