Monday, January 11, 2016

When A Bullied Student Becomes A Target For School Discipline

By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995

Over the years, I have heard many terrible stories, but some of the saddest are when a student who is a victim is disciplined, while the bully escapes punishment. Sometimes it is very clear that the victim did nothing but is being lied about by the bully.  Other times, the victim is punished for fighting back and breaking rules in their response to the bully.  Either way, parents and students need to act before a situation turns against them.

It may seem logical to assume that a school will act on reports of targeting a student.  Bullying and its dramatic negative impact to students is everywhere and "bullying" itself is the new buzz word in education.  It seems, at least in the media, that once someone alleges they were bullied, magic happens.  In the real world, this is not always the case.

Schools are legally obligated to do something when a staff member observes and/or receives a report of bullying.  However, we all know that just because someone is supposed to do something does not mean they will.  Baffled parents sit confused asking why there is a law if no one will follow it?  This is the same question  as "Why do people steal?"--  because there are people who don't know or care what the law says.  There are also schools and school districts whose staff don't know their legal obligations to act and/or don't care.

I am confused when a school fails to act despite knowledge of bullying, as it is easy for schools to jump in.  Yet, many schools blow off student reports as just "gossip" or false.  Being ignored, a student may develop the feeling that he/she has no option but to defend themselves (and in fact may be right).  The bullied student may then be caught and punished by the school if they factually DO break a rule e.g. by hitting the bully in the face.  This punishment of the bullied student, while legally allowed, ignores the fact that due to the school's utter lack of correction, the student felt they had (or did have) no other option than to get pummeled by the bully.

A Hypothetical Example Of Bullying And A Lack Of Follow Through

Here is what this type of situation could look like: Student B (Bully) tells Student V (Victim) he will beat Student V up.  Student V worries but does not report the statement.  Student B then starts calling Student V names and threatening Student V daily.  Student V tells his teacher and the teacher says she will talk to Student B. Student B stops for about a week.  Then Student B (plus Student B's friends) start up again, and Student B corners Student V in the bathroom, telling Student V he should not have gotten Student B in trouble.  Student B then threatens to beat up Student V if he tells again.  Student V tells his teacher, who tells Student V that Student B was handled and is a good student.  In other words she does not believe Student V.  The teacher never reports Student B to the office, or reports but does not follow through.

Student V, after continuing derogatory comments from Student B, and being pinched, poked and maybe hurt some other way by Student B and his friends, goes to the office.  Student V tells the secretary, who says she/he will tell the Vice Principal.  The VP, if we are lucky, gets a note or voicemail stating there is an issue.  However, often the VP will not do anything or will forget about it, and may not tell Student V's parents.

Student V meanwhile is continuing to be hurt and intimidated and his school work and grades suffer.  His parents think it is his computer usage and take his computer away.  Student V is embarrassed and does not tell his parents the truth. Student V goes to the office again as Student B is now threatening to kill him daily and throwing sharp objects at him.  Students C, D, E, F, and G may also now be involved in targeting Student V.  Student V again goes to the office and tells the secretary.  Things continue unabated.

Student V tries to "stick it out" and "be tough."  He knows the school won't help him, and he knows that he needs to protect himself or he could be seriously injured.  So, he brings a knife to school, or makes a plan to hurt the students so they will leave him alone.  Maybe he writes a list of students he does not like. Student V then is caught with the knife or alleged to have made a "hit list" about students, and is suspended and placed up for expulsion.  His family finally finds out about the bullying, now too late, and brings this up as a defense.  The school ignores the parents, explaining it does not matter as Student V broke the weapons/threat rules.  As Student V factually did break rules, this gives the school the right to discipline him.  Sadly, Student V is expelled while Student B remains in school.  

This may sound far-fetched but it is not.  I have seen this scenario unfold, often after the student victim is already up for expulsion, which the family is left to battle.

Had the bullying been handled effectively in the beginning, nothing would have escalated.  Student V would never have been in the position to be suspended or expelled as he would not have had to hatch a plan to defend himself.  Had the teacher believed Student V, sent Student B to the office to be suspended and followed up with protection for Student V, the situation may have been solved. Had the secretary or VP followed up and done something effective, such as suspend or expel Student B and his friends, Student V might have had a different future.

If a child reports bullying, parents should follow up in writing with the school to ensure something is done.  A plan needs to be developed with school staff to address the situation fully.  Parents thereafter need to ensure the school does what it promises and that no new incidents are occurring.  

Don't wait until the student victim has to resort to their own plans of resolution, which often means rule-breaking and punishment.  Suspension or expulsion may haunt the student for years to come, including when applying to college.  

Best,
Michelle Ball
Education Law Attorney 

LAW OFFICE OF MICHELLE BALL 
717 K Street, Suite 228 
Sacramento, CA 95814 
Phone: 916-444-9064 
Email:help@edlaw4students.com 
Fax: 916-444-1209
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Please see my disclaimer on the bottom of my blog page. This is legal information, not legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is formed by this posting, etc. etc.!  This blog may not be reproduced without permission from the author and proper attribution of authorship.

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