TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Christy Gibson on Mar 20, 2012

Sherry A. Wilds

Senior Staff Attorney

Disability Law & Advocacy Center of Tennessee    


     You are meeting with your client Steve, and his parents, in your office to discuss his juvenile court case. Steve has been arrested for stealing a headset from the local discount store. While you are discussing his case, his parents mention to you that Steve has had a very hard year at school. He hates going because he is being bullied every day.

     Steve has cerebral palsy and has difficulty walking. The boys in his Math class call him names and make fun of the way he walks. One boy tried to fight him in the bathroom and pushed him down. Steve has talked about getting even with them or just quitting school. He is depressed and has started failing in school. What advice or help can you give to this family on the bullying issue? The information below can provide some basic guidance whether you will assist with this issue directly or provide some basic information to the families.

     Bullying and harassment may come up when you are counseling juvenile clients. Sometimes the bullying may be related to the charges brought against your client and sometimes it may be simply a side issue that is brought up during a meeting or discovered upon your review of school or counseling records. Either way, this article is intended to provide you with some initial steps and strategies to get the school system’s attention about the issue and to hopefully stop the bullying and harassment of your client. In addition to the strategies discussed in this article, you can investigate possible ways the bullying and harassment may have contributed to the behaviors of your client and the reason you are his or her attorney. You also can investigate any possible injury resulting or likely to result from the bullying and harassment to determine if the client has grounds for a lawsuit or other legal action.

     Tennessee has several statutes that require schools to take steps to address bullying and harassment (TCA § 49-6-1015 through TCA §49-6-1019). These statutes require school systems to have a bullying and harassment policy that addresses ways the school will handle bullying and harassment in school. In addition, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a Dear Colleague letter in 2010 that gives concrete steps schools should take to address and prevent bullying and harassment in the school setting. This letter can be found at http://www2.ed.gov/print/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201010.html. The letter contains important resources on bullying as well as specific steps schools should take to address the issue based upon the individual situation and circumstances. These steps include such actions as an immediate investigation of the incident that is prompt, thorough, and impartial; immediate steps to address the problem; adopting and publishing appropriate policies and reporting procedures; eliminating hostile environments; separating the target and the harasser without penalizing the target; counseling as appropriate for the target and in some instances the harasser; and training for staff, students, and the community at large. In addition, schools should take steps to prevent retaliation and continue to follow up to ensure that bullying and/or harassment is not continuing.

     When a client appears to be the target of bullying at school, an important early step is to get all the facts so  the school can be put on written notice. Sometimes this can be difficult since some clients do not want to be seen as a “snitch” or are fearful they will be suffer further harm from telling the school. These are legitimate concerns; however, the student and family need to be informed that sometimes the situation continues to get worse if not dealt with appropriately. In addition, working with a trained mental health professional on this delicate issue is recommended. Written notice will hopefully get the school’s attention, enable the staff to have the information they need to address the problem, and help protect your client’s interests if he or she is injured or injures someone due to failure of the school to appropriately address the bullying and harassment. Best practice is to send the letter certified mail to an administrator and cc other appropriate school personnel. The letter should contain appropriate available information such as the following:

·      Date of letter

·      Purpose of letter is to put school on written notice of bullying and harassment

·      A timeline with details of any previous attempts to notify the school verbally or in writing of bullying and harassment

·      Student who is the target’s name and identifying information (e.g. birthdate)

·      Name and any identifying information of students involved in the bullying and harassment

·      Date(s) of bullying and harassment

·      Time(s)/class periods of bullying and harassment

·      Location(s) of bullying and harassment

·      Adults in charge during time(s) of bullying and harassment

·      Witnesses to bullying and harassment

·      Facts and details regarding form of bullying and harassment

·      Ways the target student has been affected by the bullying and harassment (e.g. depressed, school avoidant, drop in grades)

·      Request a copy of the school’s bullying and harassment policies

·      Demand bullying and harassment stop immediately

·      Request the school provide a written response by a deadline to address the steps the school intends to take to stop the bullying and harassment

·      Some steps that the school should take to address the bullying and harassment (training for staff, counseling for target, separate counseling for one bullying and/or harassing, development of reporting procedures etc.)

     If the bullying/ harassment is related to race, color, national origin, sex, or disability and the school failed to take appropriate action, the parents may consider filing an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint through the United States Department of Education. OCR will review the complaint and decide whether to investigate. If they do open a case on the matter, the investigator or the attorney may ask both parties whether they agree to early resolution where the school and the parents can develop an agreement in writing to resolve the issue. OCR also may investigate and get a specific finding and require the school to take certain steps if a violation is validated. OCR typically will monitor compliance with an early resolution agreement or finding from OCR. An OCR complaint can be filed online through their office in Atlanta. The process is explained at http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/howto.html.

     In addition to the suggestions above, parents may want to contact their school board and, in some cases, the media to address the problem of bullying and harassment in their children’s schools. Certainly, parent can consider other more intensive options to address the issue and any damages incurred by the student. However, this article hopefully gives the attorney assisting juveniles with this critical issue some basic early step tools to stop the bullying and harassment and prevent it from reoccurring.