Bullying lawsuit raises questions of accountability

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On the back of the bus, in the locker room, between classes: bullying is the scourge of the schoolyard. Teachers and lawmakers have yet to find a single good solution to the bully.

There are things schools are well designed to deal with and there are some things we have cops and judges to deal with, said Del. Rob Bell (R-58). Theres a whole category of bullying, emotional or social, not in itself a criminal offense, but its clearly bullying and clearly impacts the education of the bullied child, and for those you need a more comprehensive approach.

Bell sponsored a 2005 bill requiring local school boards to include bullying in standards of student conduct. Until bullying crosses the line into criminal activity, like assault or harassment, the anti-social behavior may be unacceptable, but its not illegal, Bell said.    

The solution is to create an anti-bullying culture, according to Bell. A student body rejecting bullying as a whole goes a lot further than any law Richmond could dream up, he said. 

Its an idea supported by Dr. Peter Sheras, a clinical psychologist, University of Virginia education professor and author of a book on bullying. Collective action by students is the best solution, he said. 

Punching a bully in the nose sounds like a good idea, but it fails more than it succeeds, Sheras said. Make it cool to not bully, make it cool to support other people, make it easier for people to report what theyre experiencing.

In Alexandria, students receive a character education program as mandated by state law but administrators also focus the physical locations where bullying can occur, like school buses and hallways, said Margaret Walsh, executive director of the pre-k-12 educational program.

Bullying occurs because it occurs in a venue were not in charge of, she said. You could be walking home from school or doing something online with an account your parents manage. We have to create the atmosphere that we are a deeply respectful community. When they see it happen to someone else, let us know Beyond not being cool, [bullying] will not be permitted.

BACKYARD BULLYING


At least one case of alleged bullying has Alexandrias school board and superintendent fending off a lawsuit in court. Kendall Gordon, a junior at T.C. Williams in 2009, allegedly received harassing e-mails, text messages and Facebook comments after a bitter dispute between her mother, Gail, and school officials. 

The controversy began with T.C.s lacrosse booster club and ended with Kendall finishing her high school career in a private school. According to the complaint filed in circuit court by attorney David Hudgins, despite warning school officials about the harassment, bullying was allowed to continue. 

The situation culminated with a confrontation at a school dance that left Kendall suffering from heart palpitations and swelling in the face, according to court documents. 

Gail believes school officials should have taken steps to protect her daughter from gossip and bullying.

I believe it is absolutely the job of schools to protect kids from bullying, especially when the schools have been warned of specific cases, she emphasized via email. If we put our kids in the care of our schools for 6-8 hours a day, who else could possibly protect our kids?

The boards attorney Julia Judkins says Superintendent Morton Sherman was never contacted about the bullying. Theres no evidence Kendall was bullied, Judkins said, and even if she was, it doesnt rise to level of a crime for which school officials could be held accountable.

What the lawsuit does do is open up potential litigation for every parent or student upset about a school decision, like receiving a C for a grade rather than an A, she said.

My argument is they havent alleged any crime occurred. There are no facts, just this concept of bullying, Judkins said. This particular lawsuit is not a good example of true bullying. This is frivolous.

PLACING BLAME

Whether school officials or teachers could be held accountable for bullying at all remains a contentious question. Bell believes it is a stretch to hold teachers responsible for the actions of children at all times. Walsh argues fostering a no-tolerance environment is paramount to assigning blame.

For Sheras, bullying is a failure of the community as a whole, not one single individual. 

I think were all accountable, he said. Weve created the kind of community in our society that tolerates these things and nobody should tolerate it. To blame one single group misses the point.

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