Agencies, boards address student harassment liabilities
by Mark Andrews
Dec 04, 2012 | 1421 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Numerous Georgia education associations, as well as national and neighboring state associations, are urging the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to rule school systems should not be held financially liable for harassment related to a student’s disability if school officials took appropriate steps to stop it. Locally, both Bartow County and Cartersville City school systems address student harassment in their policies as well as through training.

“It is important that the court recognize that local school officials, who work closely with students and parents on a regular basis, are knowledgeable about community resources, and understand their students’ educational and emotional needs, know best how to prevent and respond to harassment in their own schools,” National School Board Association General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón Jr. said in a press release.

The NSBA, along with the Georgia School Boards Association, the Alabama School Boards Association, and the Georgia School Superintendents Association, has filed an amicus brief in Long v. Murray County School District asking the court to uphold the standard set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court case Davis v. Monroe when determining whether school officials are liable under federal civil rights laws for peer harassment. According to the release, “The Davis precedent allows victims to collect monetary compensation when school officials are deliberately indifferent to known harassment based on a protected category that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment that it denies the victim access to the educational program.”

In March, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the Long v. Murray County School District lawsuit, writing in a 186 page order the district was not deliberately indifferent to the bullying of Tyler Long, a 17-year-old student who suffered from Aspergers Syndrome and committed suicide in 2009. The family has since filed an appeal and the amicus brief essentially provides information to the court for consideration in the appeal.

“A school district, however, is not deliberately indifferent simply because the measures it takes are ultimately ineffective in stopping harassment,” Murphy wrote in the order.

On Thursday’s work session, Cartersville City Board of Education will discuss clarifying existing language in the system’s policy regarding the reporting of student harassment. The updated language, to be voted upon Monday during the board’s regular business session, will read, “Immediate and reasonably appropriate actions should be taken by school officials upon receipt of any report of bullying, regardless of the source, identity of the alleged violator or victim, grade level, previous circumstances, and/or personal beliefs. Therefore, all reports of bullying must be taken seriously. The system’s stance on bullying should be posted in each school and placed in student and employee handbooks and student codes of conduct.

“Any employee who has reliable information that would lead a reasonable person to suspect that someone is a target of bullying shall immediately report it to the school principal. Any person who reports an incident of bullying in good faith shall be immune from civil liability for any damages caused by such reporting.”

The language to be discussed Thursday is an extension of a previously adopted policy handed down by the state and approved by both Bartow County and Cartersville City systems last year.

Specifically, SB 250 expands the definition of bullying to harassment on school networks and computers and includes language requiring any teacher or school employee with reliable information that someone is a target of bullying, immediately report it to the principal ­­— something argued as a result of media attention to teen suicides attributed to situations in which school employees knew a bullying situation was occurring but did not interfere.

During a 2011 anti-bullying workshop for Bartow County school employees, attorney Andrew Agatston said while there are numerous lawsuits filed each year in Georgia against school systems accused of allowing bullying, few hardly ever make it to court.

“The cases that you hear about [going to trial] have an extreme set of circumstances,” Agatston said. “The traditional stories of bullying are being resolved in the schools and are not dealing with any litigation, at least in my research.”

Agatston said it was important, however, for school systems to understand their legal responsibilities and liabilities when it comes to handling bullying situations.

“It’s gotten so important that we have to deal with [bullying] and we need to deal with it proactively and upfront,” Superintendent John Harper said during the workshop.

Emerson Elementary School principal Rob Kittle addressed during the two-day workshop the school’s policy concerning intervention in student-harassment scenarios.

“If we see some behavior that could become repeated behavior or could become a power-based thing against another child that we intervene immediately and really get something in place, and I think that really goes back to training our teachers to know what to look for and what they can deal with in their classroom and what we can deal with in the office as well,” Kittle said.

The release further states, “Among other claims, the case will determine whether the Murray County school district in Georgia should be held liable under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act for money damages as a result of the suicide of a student with Asperger’s Syndrome. After the student reported incidents of peer bullying during his freshman and sophomore years, school officials responded effectively to all known occurrences at school. The student committed suicide at home during his junior year.”