What should you do if you learn—or just suspect—that other kids are picking on your child, either at school or on social media? A good place to start is the federal government’s stopbullying.gov website, which provides lots of tips and resources for parents, including how to recognize the warning signs that your child is being bullied, how to find out what has actually happened, what to do about it, and where to go for help.
First of all, it’s important to recognize that bullying can have serious, long-term effects on your child, from skipping school and dropping grades to anxiety and depression. To avoid risking these consequences, experts recommend that you don’t ignore the problem or hope that the children will work it out among themselves. The faster you act, the better your chances of turning the situation around.
What Is Bullying?
In general, bullying is any unwanted physical, verbal or other aggressive behavior by a student (or a group of students) that’s directed at another child. The behavior either has already been repeated or has the potential to happen again. Typically, the bully has more power than the victim, because he or she is bigger, older, or even more popular.
Bullying can take many forms, including:
- cyberbullying or sexual harassment (more on those below)
- teasing or name-calling
- shoving, hitting, tripping, hair-pulling, or any other kind of physical assault
- “hazing” (forcing another student to do something humiliating or dangerous)
- damaging or stealing belongings
- demanding money, and
- spreading rumors about someone or telling other students not to be friends with them.
Most schools have policies that define bullying, but they can differ in specifics from school to school.
Is Bullying a Crime?
Until recently, behavior that fits within the description above would have been charged as harassment, assault, a hate crime, or stalking. But as public awareness of bullying rose, legislators in some states designed specific statutes that target bullying alone. In states that have not written specific laws, prosecutors continue to charge perpetrators with the crimes just mentioned.
Keep in mind that when a juvenile is accused of breaking a criminal law, in most cases the result isn’t a “criminal charge.” Rather, the child is dealt with in the juvenile justice system, where the court may find that the child violated the law, and then conclude that continued supervision by the court and county agencies is necessary to teach or counsel the child away from such behavior. A finding of “juvenile delinquency” is not the same as a criminal conviction, though it does have ramifications.
These days, more and more bullying happens through texting or on social networking sites like Twitter or Instagram. Because kids spend so much of their social lives online—and because tweets or other postings can spread so far and so quickly—it can be especially devastating when they become victims of cyberbullying. Like in-person bullying, cyberbullying can take many forms, including spreading nasty rumors, posting nude or just embarrassing photos or videos of someone, creating fake profiles, or tweeting mean or sexual comments about another student. Many states have specific laws that make it a crime to use any electronic form of communication (including a phone) to harass someone—especially if the bully targets the victim because of gender or sexual orientation. (See our article on teen cyberbullying and harassment for more information.)
When bullies target their victims because of their race, national origin, religion, gender, or disability, the behavior may be illegal discrimination under federal law. (For more details, see our article on the difference between bullying and harassment.)
What Can You Do As a Parent?
Anti-bullying organizations and government agencies recommend a number of steps that parents can take:
- First, try to get the story. Have your child tell you what happened in detail (and record it); older kids can write the description themselves. Pull together any evidence that’s available. For instance, save and print screenshots of social media postings and text messages. If your child was physically hurt, take pictures and get the names of any witnesses.
- Make a written report of the bullying to your child’s teachers and school principal, and give them the evidence you’ve gathered.
- If your first report doesn't bring results within a couple of days, write another letter to the principal and school district superintendent, outlining the facts and requesting an immediate response to the problem. Most states require schools to have anti-bullying policies that include procedures for reporting and investigating bullying, as well as taking ways to stop it and protect the victim. Public schools risk losing funding if they don’t write and implement procedures to deal with bullying, which gives them added incentive to take the issue seriously.
- If the same bully has been targeting other students as well as your child, encourage their parents to speak up to school officials. School representatives are more likely to respond immediately if they see the problem as widespread.
What About the Police?
Call the police right away if your child has been physically assaulted in any way. The police might also get involved if the bullying qualifies as criminal harassment or cyberbullying. They’ll investigate, and the bully might end up in juvenile court. The police should also be able to tell you about any other options for keeping the bully away from your child.
When Should You Talk to a Lawyer?
You should talk to an attorney if your child has been accused of bullying—especially if it entails behavior that could be criminally charged. Depending on your state, this could include not only physical or sexual assaults, but also cyberbullying and any bullying that targets the victim based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, or disability. Some cyberbullying—like posting a nude picture of someone or making comments with sexual overtones—could be charged as a serious crime (engaging in pornography).
If your child has been the victim of bullying, you might want to ask an attorney to write to school officials about the situation; this could be a good way to let them know how serious you are. Also, a lawyer could give you information about the possibility of filing a civil case against the bully for any harm any that was caused, or of suing the school district.
Lawyers with extensive juvenile court experience should be well-suited to evaluate a situation involving bullying. Many criminal defense attorneys specialize in juvenile criminal matters as well.