What are schools required to do to address bullying and cyberbullying?

Many states require schools to adopt rules and procedures to identify and deal with student bullying.

Question: My daughter is in 8th grade at a public school in Miami. Lately, she has been the butt of some very mean verbal attacks and tweets by a group of popular girls who have her in their sights for some reason. I talked to a counselor at the school but she wasn’t much help. Does the law require the school to step in?

Answer: If the mistreatment amounts to bullying under Florida law, the school does have a legal obligation to take certain actions (and should have taken some already).

For information about bullying, cyberbullying, and harassment among minors, see our article Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment.

What is Bullying?

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged minors that typically involves a real or perceived power imbalance (whether due to size, age, or popularity).

The federal government’s Stopbullying.gov website lays out rules and policies that schools should institute, as well as other actions schools should take, to prevent and address bullying. That site even offers a model policy for schools to adopt.

Bullying laws differ from state to state, and the requirements that schools must fulfill under those laws likewise vary. However, there are certain key components that the laws share. Here are some of them.

Elements of State Anti-Bullying Laws

Most state laws designed to address and prevent student bullying require schools (sometimes referred to as “local educational agencies” or “LEAs”) to develop and put into place anti-bullying policies. These policies should include the following components:

  • a definition of what constitutes “bullying”
  • a reporting procedure for victim’s of bullying to follow
  • an investigation procedure that the school will follow, with immediate intervention steps it will take after receiving reports of bullying
  • a process for documenting investigations of, and responses to, bullying reports
  • sanctions the school may impose if it finds bullying, and
  • a procedure for school officials to refer the victim, alleged bully, or both to counseling or other outside services.

Reporting procedure

Under the model policy (and most state anti-bullying laws, including Florida), school reporting procedures need to identify the individual(s) to whom reports should be made. The school policy should allow for anonymous reporting of bullying by students. And it should require school officials and employees to promptly report bullying they witness. Last but not least, the policy should also state that retaliation against reporting students will not be tolerated.

Investigation and immediate intervention procedure

In addition to setting up the investigatory steps school officials must take (speaking to the victim, speaking to the alleged bully, speaking to witnesses), the policy should set out the immediate intervention to be taken after a bullying report. Immediate intervention, which is done to protect students while the investigation is proceeding, includes notifying parents, steps to protect the victim from further targeting, and contact with law enforcement agencies if warranted (for example, where there has been a physical assault).

Documenting

A good investigation always involves keeping records. These include the statements of the reporting victim, the alleged bully, any witnesses, and notes from discussions or interviews with others (such as parents or school officials). Documenting is essential to create a record that can be reviewed at a later point (when memories may have faded), and as evidence that the school responded appropriately to the report. The policy should set out clearly who may and may not view such documents in order to protect student confidentiality as much as legally possible. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) sets out the privacy rights of students.

Sanctions

The policy should also set forth the range of sanctions the school may impose if, after conducting the investigation, it finds that bullying has occurred.These sanctions are meant to address the bullying, punish and deter the bully, and protect the victim and others from future bullying. Sanctions are usually graduated from least to most severe (depending on the severity of the bullying found), and can range from counseling to suspension or expulsion.

Florida law

Fortunately for you and your daughter, Florida has enacted an anti-bullying law that includes the components listed above. (Fla. Stat. Ann. § 1006.147.) The Florida Department of Education, like such departments in other states, has a web page devoted to bullying prevention with links to other resources, and a description of school legal requirements.

See a Lawyer

Florida, like many states, has a detailed anti-bullying law that dictates what schools in the state must do to comply in order to prevent and address bullying. If you have questions about that law and whether your daughter’s school has complied with it, consult with a lawyer who has experience with education and public entity (government) law.

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