Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Legal Way Of Standing-up To Schoolyard Bullies

Parents who are tired of schools not doing anything to stop the bullying of their children are taking both the schools and the parents of bullies to court:
The parents of students accused of harassing a classmate have settled a lawsuit filed against them and a San Mateo County, Calif., school district where the alleged name-calling occurred.

Lawsuits against the parents of alleged bullies are rare, with school officials usually the first to be accused of not doing enough to stop bullying. But Shaposhnikov v. the Pacifica School District and John Roes 1-10 may be part of a new approach to finding legal fault — and somebody to pay financial damages — when bullying goes unchallenged, experts say.

In this suit, Mark Shaposhnikov alleges the district allowed his son, a competitive dancer, to be taunted with homosexual slurs for two years in middle school, in violation of federal laws forbidding harassment and discrimination. Shaposhnikov says he met many times with school officials — and that nothing changed until he filed the lawsuit.

"Our position was 'OK, school, you're responsible,' and the school came back repeatedly and said, 'No, we're not. We communicated with the parents and repeatedly told them about this,' " said Paul Smoot, the attorney representing the Shaposhnikovs.

So, the suit used a legal principle called vicarious liability, the idea that parents are responsible for their children's behavior — in this case, "intentional infliction of emotional distress," Smoot said.

Six of the parents of alleged bullies named in the suit have settled, but terms of the deal are confidential, Smoot said. The other four parents have not been located.

The Pacifica School District is still fighting the lawsuit, and school officials say they think the parents settled under pressure from the carriers of their homeowners insurance policies. The settlement, said superintendent Michele Garside, "does not reflect the merits of the case."

For the district, she said, the case "is a matter of principle, and we will seek vindication."

A trial is set for April.
The Shaposhnikov suit is the second time the district has found itself sued because of alleged failure to stop harassment of a student. In 1997, a 12-year-old Pacifica boy and his mother sued the district, then known as the Laguna Salada Union Elementary District, alleging that officials did nothing to protect him when students subjected him to homosexual slurs.

As a classroom teacher who has witnessed the long-term damage that these little thugs inflict upon their victims, I don't have much patience for bullies. Personally, I feel that pupils who have established a pattern of bullying their classmates should be promptly removed from mainstream classrooms and placed in a more structured classroom environment where they would be under constant adult supervision.

Could the bully "earn" his or her way back into a mainstream program? They could, but only after several months of positive behavior.

Our public school system does have the capability to stop bullying once and for all. In the 21st century, no child should ever go to school fearing for his or her safety. Our kids deserve nothing less.
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