Bullying can be more serious than schoolyard taunting—repeated verbal and physical threats can have a lasting impact on a child’s mental health, leading to depression, anxiety, and decreased academic achievement. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in five students was bullied in 2015. Depending on the circumstances and severity of the bullying, your child could be protected against his or her harasser by law.

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Currently, all 50 states have some type of law requiring schools to implement anti-bullying policies. The first to adopt bullying legislation was Georgia, in 1999. The last was Montana, in 2015. However, only 18 have criminal sanctions for bullies. In most cases, sanctions stop at school suspension or similar punishments, although some bullies have received jail time for their actions. In a 2013 case in Florida, two girls, ages 12 and 14, were charged with felonies for bullying another 12-year-old girl until she took her own life. And school bullies in Missouri can face criminal charges under recently passed legislation that makes it a felony offense to inflict “emotional distress” on another.

There is a significant gray area when it comes to the legal nature of bullying, but under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, any type of harassment based on a protected class such as race, gender, or religion is federally prohibited. If you wish to seek legal recourse because your child is being bullied, you would generally consult with a personal injury attorney experienced in cases involving discrimination and harassment.

State and federal guidelines

Anti-bullying laws and guidelines vary widely among states. The vast majority of states require schools to implement some type of policy and most allow the schools to determine appropriate punishments. Other states provide additional authority to the schools. In California, for example, “Seth’s Law” permits schools to permanently expel bullies. This legislation, passed in 2011, was named for 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who committed suicide after extensive bullying. And with the passing of anti-bullying law Bill 1661 in Oklahoma in Oklahoma, law enforcement can intervene in cases of cyberbullying, effectively making punishment a legal matter.

In just about every state, schools are the first line of defense against bullying and cyberbullying. If they fail to appropriately respond to reports of bullying and harassment, they may be liable for any resulting harm. An experienced personal injury attorney can help you determine how to proceed if your child has been the victim of school or online bullying.

Bullying’s new tools

In addition to school and workplace bullying, policies addressing online bullying—known as cyberbullying—have increased in recent years. Although online bullying is reported less than its in-person counterpart, reports have risen consistently since 2007 along with that of internet use and social media. In fact, at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, it was announced that the number of young people hospitalized for attempted suicide doubled between 2008 and 2015. Experts believe that much of this increase can be attributed to cyberbullying.

Due to laws surrounding freedom of speech, there is still no federal law prohibiting cyberbullying. However, anti-bullying laws in 48 states include policies on electronic harassment.

“Cyberbullying can take many forms,” writes Salar Atrizadeh, a California attorney specializing in internet law and alternative dispute resolution. Acts constituting cyberbullying may include:

  • Posting false or hurtful comments about someone
  • Threatening violence or encouraging suicide
  • Posting hurtful or embarrassing pictures or videos
  • Impersonating someone online and spreading false or personal information about them
  • Creating a website to hurt or insult someone
  • Publishing someone’s personal information, including their phone number or address

“Cyberbullying is a serious problem many people are dealing with today,” Atrizadeh says. “With the increasing use of electronics in schools, traditional methods of bullying, such as physical and verbal acts, have transferred into the online world. Electronics make it easier than ever to say false, hurtful, or negative things to others, especially in an educational environment where students interact with one another on a regular basis. Cyberbullying can increase the risk for suicide-related behaviors, among other risk factors. Cyberbullying is a serious issue, and also a crime in California.”

What is the legal recourse?

The nature of the comments facing today’s students is particularly harsh, as Delanie Marcotte, a student at Pollard Elementary School in New Hampshire, shared in a June 2018 school board meeting:

“I’m here to talk about a problem that means a lot to me: bullying. Bullying is a problem in our school. I am a victim of it. My parents have contacted the school about it, but it continues. It happened to me and my classmates. I have been asked by the mother of my bully during a school field trip why I tried to get her son in trouble. I have been threatened to get shot in the head by an AK-47 and buried in my back yard, and many other things. I ask you: What are you going to do to protect me and my classmates against bullying? I am here to stand up for every kid that gets bullied.”

If your child is being repeatedly being threatened either physically or verbally by someone they know, read up on the laws against bullying in your state and consider contacting an attorney. Anti-bullying laws are constantly evolving. Although there is legal recourse in some situations—such as the imposition of criminal sanctions, or the ability to sue the parents of a bully—the gray area is still quite vast. As such, it is essential to work with an experienced education or personal injury lawyer if you are planning to take legal action against a bully.