Legal Recourse for Bullying and Violence at School: Parent Action Guide

Here’s what parents need to know about legal recourse against school bullies, their parents, and the responsibility of the school.

Bullying in school is a serious problem for every parent. More than one out of five children report being bullied, meaning every child is exposed to bullying and violence at school, in one way or another. ¹

Children who are bullied suffer physical and emotional injuries.

Bullying increases the risk of depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, poor grades, and self-harm, including suicide. ²

Parents have the right to expect their child’s school to be a safe environment. Here’s what you can do if your child is being bullied at school.

Forms of School Bullying

Parents are in a better position to protect their child when they know what they’re up against.

Bullying is more than “kids being kids.” Learning the tactics most often used by a bully will help you understand the depth of harm to your child.

Putting a name to the form of bullying your child is suffering will help you communicate with the school, authorities, and other parents.

Physical bullying is a form of physical assault.  Physical bullying involves physical aggression, such as pushing, slapping, punching, hair-pulling, tripping and hitting with objects, like school books. Physical bullying also includes restraining a child, pulling or tearing at clothing, and throwing objects or bodily fluids at a child.

Verbal bullying is the use of language to berate another student, such as teasing, mocking, or name-calling. Verbal bullying includes racial slurs, taunts regarding the target’s perceived gender preferences, personal appearance, body shape, or disabilities.

Relational aggression is a variant of verbal bullying, when one or more students intentionally spread rumors, manipulate situations, and reveal confidential information to ruin another person’s reputation or social standing. Relational aggression is used more often by girls, especially between the fifth and eighth grades.

Reactive bullying happens when one student falsely presents themselves as a victim when they are actually the bully. Reactive bullies persistently taunt, tease, push, or strike their victims until the victim strikes out.

Cyberbullying consists of the use of social media to willfully, viciously and maliciously harass a student, whether by posting unflattering and compromising photographs, making derogatory, demeaning, or hurtful remarks, or to otherwise abuse, belittle, or harass another student.

Sexual bullying can include comments, actions, gestures, or unwanted touching related to the victim’s appearance, body parts, gender, perceived sexual orientation, or perceived sexual activity. Sexual bullying can rise to the level of sexual assault.

Frequent Locations for Bullying

Bullying can happen in the school building, often in locations out of direct sight of teachers such as:

  • Hallways
  • Locker Rooms
  • Bathrooms
  • Cafeterias
  • Playgrounds

Students are often bullied on their way to school or on their way home, on the bus or walking.

A significant number of children are viciously bullied on the Internet.

Signs Your Child is Being Bullied

You know your child better than anyone else. Trust your instincts if you feel there is something “off.” Your child, even older children, may not tell you about being bullied because:

  1. They’re embarrassed to admit they are being bullied
  2. They’re afraid they won’t be believed
  3. They feel so bad about themselves, they think they somehow deserve to be treated badly

Warning signs in your child can include:

  • Doesn’t want to go to school
  • Refuses to ride the bus or starts missing the bus
  • Comes home with missing or damaged personal items
  • Has unexplained marks or bruises
  • Loses interest in school activities
  • Falling grades
  • Sleep problems, bedwetting, or nightmares
  • Crying, sad, and depressed behavior

Children with Disabilities

Children with disabilities are at increased risk of being bullied. Special needs children exhibit many of the same warning signs of being bullied as other schoolchildren.

Additional warning signs of bullying and abuse in non-verbal children may include:

  • Social withdrawal
  • Avoidance of certain places or people
  • Behavioral outburst around certain people or places
  • Developmental regression

When the Teacher is the Bully

Increasing awareness of bullying has resulted in the development of anti-bullying programs in most schools. However, school programs invariably focus on bullying by students on students.

What about when the teacher is the bully? We’ve all heard news stories about college coaches mistreating players and losing their jobs over it. Unfortunately, abusive behavior in education is not limited to highly competitive coaches.

Case Summary: School Teacher Bullies and Abuses Students  

Theresa Allen-Caulboy taught special education classes at an elementary school in Antioch, California. Allen-Caulboy bullied the children under her care verbally and physically.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of eight students documented ongoing verbal and physical abuse by Allen-Caulboy, including name-calling, threatening, using racial slurs, and “physical abuse including but not limited to hitting, gouging, pinching and restraining children.”

The lawsuit also blamed the Antioch school system for covering up the teacher’s ongoing abusive behavior.

The Antioch school district settled the case with the eight families for $8 million.

In a separate criminal proceeding, Allen-Caulboy pleaded guilty to one felony count of child abuse and two misdemeanor charges. The plea agreement included six months in jail and the surrender of her teaching credentials.

State and Federal Laws Against Bullying

There are no current federal laws specifically aimed at bullying. However, students who are bullied because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity are protected under federal civil rights laws.

Civil Rights Act of 1968

Also known as the Fair Housing Act, this ground-breaking federal law was enacted to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin on public transportation, in public places like lunchrooms, libraries, and movie theaters, and any other place that serves the public.

The law also prohibited interference with an individual’s right to attend school.


Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, and activities provided by State and local government entities, regardless of whether these entities receive Federal financial assistance.

Public schools are state and local government entities.


Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act

This act ensures that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.

The school must maintain an environment that supports the disabled child’s education plan. That includes protecting the child from bullies, once the school is aware of the bullying.


State and Local Laws About Bullying

Every U.S. state and territory, and many large metropolitan areas have laws and guidelines to protect children from bullying.


School Liability for Bullying

School administrators and teachers have a legal duty of care to do everything within reason to protect students from undue harm and injury.

When the school knew or should have known that your child was being bullied, and the school failed to respond appropriately, the school may be legally negligent.

If a student is unduly harmed or injured as a result of this negligence, then the school is liable, meaning responsible, for any damages suffered by the student, such as medical costs, pain and suffering, and the parent’s lost wages while caring for their child.

Proving the school’s liability for a child’s damages requires:

  1. The school had a legal duty of care to the injured student.
  2. The injury to the student was, or should have been, foreseeable.
  3. The school failed to take reasonable action to stop the bullying.
  4. The student was in fact injured due to the bullying.
  5. The student’s injuries resulted in damages, such as medical costs.

To determine whether a school was negligent, the courts consider how a reasonable teacher or school administrator would have acted under similar circumstances. The courts consider the following factors:

  • The training and experience of the teacher in charge.
  • The students’ grade levels.
  • The location where the injury occurred.
  • Whether the school knew or should have known the child was being bullied, and whether the school took adequate measures to stop further bullying before it occurred.

Schools and Sovereign Immunity

In some states, it is not possible to sue any government entity, including a public school. This immunity from lawsuits is referred to as sovereign immunity, and it protects school districts from lawsuits associated with bullying.

In 1946, the federal government passed the Federal Tort Claims Act waiving sovereign immunity for some types of personal injury cases. Since then, most states have enacted laws that define the limits of sovereign immunity for state governmental entities and their employees.

In most cases, a school can still be sued if there is evidence of school negligence that resulted in student injury. As in any government case, there may be special rules or deadlines for filing your claim or lawsuit.

Case Summary:  Student Paralyzed by Punch from Bully

Sawyer Rosenstein was a 12-year old middle-school student in New Jersey whose life was changed forever by a bully.

The bullying had been going on at school for months. Sawyer had reported the other student’s aggressive behavior to school officials, including emails to the guidance counselor asking for help. The same bully had previously punched another student in the face.

On May 16, 2006, the bully punched Sawyer in the abdomen so hard he fell to his knees. The blow caused a blood clot in a major artery to Sawyers’ spine, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Sawyer’s family sued the school district, alleging the school district knew the bully had a history of violence, yet failed to comply with the state’s anti-bullying law.

In 2012, the school district agreed to pay $4.2 million to settle the case. A separate lawsuit against the bully and his parents was settled for an undisclosed amount.

What to Do When Your Child is Bullied

Let your child know you are there to support them. Bullying is never acceptable, and it is not the child’s fault.

Physical or sexual violence against a child is criminal behavior. If your child is the victim of a crime, notify the police immediately.

If your child was physically or sexually injured or thinking of suicide, seek immediate medical attention. If your child’s medical provider suspects abuse, they are obligated to notify authorities.

Communicating with the School

Contact the school to report the bullying and discuss how the situation will be handled. You can start with your child’s teacher and work your way up from there. You may need to speak with:

  • The school counselor
  • The principal
  • The school superintendent
  • The State Department of Education

Seeking Compensation Through Litigation

Some bullying cases are unlikely to be resolved outside of the legal system, such as:

  • Wrongful death of a child
  • Extreme injuries to a child
  • Cases where the bully/abuser was a teacher or other school employee

Your attorney will help you pursue justice and compensation against all potentially negligent parties:

  • The school district
  • Individual school officials
  • The bully who injured your child
  • Parents of the bully

Whether or not the bully faces criminal charges, you have the right to file a civil lawsuit for compensation.

School Bullying Victim Resources

StopBullying.gov: Information to help prevent bullying, designed for parents, schools, and kids.

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights: Provides information on filing a civil rights complaint about harassment at school.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights: Referral Service to report hate crimes and discrimination complaints.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255

LGBT National Help Center:Provides free and confidential support and local resources to gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people.

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