BY Susan M. Brazas for Lawyers.com
The news traveled quickly, from South Hadley, Massachusetts, to the cover of People magazine and around the world. Young Phoebe Prince, 15, committed suicide just one year after moving to the US from Ireland.
She had been taunted mercilessly by cruel classmates. The cowardly teens attacked the girl while hidden behind their computer screens and cell phones, via Facebook and text messages.
Would your child treat another child that way? It often doesn't take much to be known as a class bully.
Bullies Are Entitled to Confidentiality
Parents in the South Hadley, Massachusetts high school were angry they weren't told the identity of or the punishments for the students who taunted Phoebe Prince. Some news reports claimed that two students were suspended and then expelled for their part in the bullying. A school official would say only that two students were no longer attending school there. He explained he couldn't make any further comment due to confidentiality concerns.
School administrators walk a delicate tightrope trying to reassure parents their student won't be bothered by bullies anymore. They can't reveal the name of the student, or if or how the student was punished, unless the bully's parents gives them specific permission to do so.
For the same reason, school administrators can't tell the bully or his parents what you or your child told them, unless you specifically say they can. Just as a student's grades, test scores, discipline history or medical history can't be revealed by the school, except with the parent's specific written permission.
Parent Intervention Is Important
If you suspect your child is bullying other children, it's critical you stop the behavior. You could be putting yourself at risk for being sued if your child causes harm to another child. Or, as with Phoebe Prince's bullies, if your child taunts another child so much that they harm or kill themselves.
Especially if you knew or, in legal terms, "should have known," your child was harming another child physically or emotionally, get help for your child right away. Seek help from school counselors, a social worker or a child psychologist. If your child is on medication, there's a chance the dosage or type needs to be adjusted. You might be able to arrange for a mediator to help mend fences with the student and their parents, to help your student gain empathy and respect for the other student.
The sad lesson of the Columbine High School shooting is that those who are bullied can turn their bottled-up rage against others.
If you learn or suspect that your child is being bullied by another student, arrange for a private meeting with teachers, counselors or school administrators. It's important to make the school aware of the bullying, especially if it's become extreme or if there is any hint of physical danger.
The Causes of Bullying
There are many theories about why children are cruel to each other. Some are ready to blame TV, music, movies or video games, but these could only be part of the answer. These items have parental warnings and guidelines attached to them so you as parents or guardians can know what your child's doing. Even the programs can block certain sites on the internet.
Be an active participant in your child's life. Sometimes it's difficult when you get a "it was fine," or "yeah, everything's OK" answer to your questions.
Whether it's TV or peer pressure to fit in, educate your child on what it feels like to be bullied and the results of her behavior. It's a tough time for all and some have it even harder. Most schools have anti-bullying policies; know your school's policy and help your child understand it, too.
Questions for Your Attorney
- If my child bullies another child to the point where they commit suicide. Can I be liable?
- Can I sue the school for failing to tell me my child was being bullied?
- Does a child have the right to defend himself physically if bullied? Our school's policy is to discipline all students involved in a fight. Is it legal to reprimand the victim?