Legal Recourse for Bullying and Violence at School

teenage boy bullied at school

Bullying is an increasingly prevalent problem, with more than 750,000 reported acts of school violence each year.[1][2] Bullying and school violence can occur on and off school property, and involve perpetrators, victims, and witnesses.

Five Forms of Bullying

  1. Physical bullying consists of the use physical aggression, such as pushing and punching. Many schools have a zero tolerance policy to physical bullying. Physical bullying can involve one or more perpetrators.[3][4]
  2. Verbal bullying consists of the use of language to assail another student, such as teasing, mocking, or name-calling. Verbal bullying often occurs in view of witnesses.[5]
  3. Reactive bullying consists of one student falsely presenting themselves as a victim when they themselves are the bully. Reactive bullies persistently taunt, tease, push, or strike their victims until the victim strikes out.[6]
  4. 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.[7]
  5. Vandalism and theft are forms of bullying that consist of damaging or stealing a student’s property, such as their clothing, money, or electronic devices. Feelings of powerlessness, despair, anger, or fear related to social status and school experiences can lead students to vandalize school property.[8]

Twelve Ways You Can Prevent Bullying

  1. Understand the nature and extent of the bullying. Bullying is prevalent among students, with nearly one in five students reporting that they have been bullied on school property, and one in nine students reporting that they have been cyberbullied in the previous year.[9][10][11]
  2. Understand the risk factors that contribute to bullying, such as a dysfunctional or abusive home life, behavioral difficulties, mental health issues, and socially disorganized communities.[12]
  3. Establish an open dialogue with your child. Simply listening to what children have to say can be quite revealing. It’s better to have an acute ear to see what is really going on in a child’s life than to lecture the child. Engaging a child in a discussion about school, friends, and after school activities can be a constructive way to find out what your child is involved in, and with whom.
  4. Set boundaries with consequences for your child’s actions. Waiting until children have committed acts of violence may be too late. Children benefit from discipline and boundaries that keep them safe and teach them about acceptable behaviors. Your child should know that stepping outside those boundaries is not only inappropriate, but results in consequences.
  5. Set an example for your child. From an early age, children are influenced by their parents. Whether consciously or subconsciously, children begin to mimic their parents, including how their parents handle stress and display prejudice.[13] When children observe physical or psychological abuse at home, they may use similar techniques to solve problems at school.
  6. Be aware of warning signs. Parents should be aware of behavioral changes in their children. The following is a list of symptoms that may appear:
    • Physical signs of injury
    • Sudden or persistent darkness, sadness, or withdrawal from family and friends
    • Missing or damaged personal property
    • Torn or disheveled clothing
    • Complaints of illness when there are no visible symptoms
    • Skipping one or more classes
    • Not wanting to ride the school bus
    • Running away from home for short periods of time
    • Carrying a weapon, whether a nail file, a screwdriver, or a knife
    • References to suicide, or statements about not wanting to be around anymore
    • Angry threats about getting even with another student
  7. Be proactive in your child’s schooling. Know which classes a child is taking, the names of teachers and school counselors, assignments due, and grades achieved. Being in touch with your child’s school can help you spot problematic behavior and deal with it promptly.
  8. Teach your child to recognize and avoid violence. Teach your child to be aware of precipitating factors which may lead to violence. Help him or her become aware of possible perpetrators and teach your child to avoid them at all costs, even if that means not being part of a clique at school.
  9. Identify a safe haven at school. Be aware of the physical layout of your child’s school. Go on a Saturday or Sunday when school is out and locate the safest place your child can go in the event he or she senses violence. This could be a classroom, the nurse’s office, the principal’s office, or the hall outside it. Explain to your child that they are not running away, but instead are preventing themselves from becoming involved in a physical altercation which may lead to their own discipline.
  10. Teach the difference between tattling and whistle blowing. No one likes a bully. Your child should know that reporting a bully to a teacher or school staff member is not weak or cowardly, but a commendable act that helps all students.
  11. Help your child develop a buddy system. It’s important for your child to be among friends at school. The more the better. There is safety in numbers. It is less likely a bully will attack your child when he or she is among friends.Know who your child’s friends are. If your child doesn’t seem to have many, speak with the parents of other children who may have things in common with your child. This is especially helpful if your child is shy.
  12. Enroll your child in a self-defense class. Self-defense classes teach your child how to defend themselves and instill self-confidence and self-esteem.

Violence Prevention Strategies for Schools

  1. Fulfill the legal duty of care. Schools have a legal and moral duty to make their property safe so students are not unduly harmed. This begins with teachers. Teachers must identify to the school administration students who may potentially be problematic. Administrators have a duty to intervene and avoid becoming negligent.
  2. Stay informed about daily events and incidents. Teachers and school administrators must be aware of what is going in the halls, locker rooms, on the field, and at after-school activities. Keeping involved by speaking with students and listening to their concerns can be crucial, especially when there’s a sense of impending violence.
  3. Host guest speakers to discuss bullying. Guest speakers, such as police officers, lawyers, and social workers, can have a positive impact on students.
  4. Encourage students to report concerns and incidents. Identifying the catalysts to possible confrontations can help reduce the incidents of violence. Let students know that they can remain anonymous when reporting concerns.
  5. Engage parents about inappropriate behavior. Opening the eyes of parents can help to stem or eliminate acts of student violence.[15]

School Liability and Legal Duty of Care

School administrators and teachers have a legal duty of care to do everything within reason to protect students from undue harm and injury. When a school fails in their duty, it is a breach of legal duty and constitutes negligence.

If a student is unduly harmed or injured as a result of this negligence, then the school is liable 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.

To prove that a school is liable for injuries suffered by a student, the student’s parents must prove all of the following:

  • The school had a legal duty of care to the injured student.
  • The injury to the student was, or should have been, foreseeable.
  • The school failed to take reasonable action to stop the violent act from occurring.
  • The student was injured due to the failure of the school to take reasonable action.
  • 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 had actual or constructive notice of the possibility that a student would be injured as a result of the violence, and whether the school took adequate measures to stop the violence before it occurred.[16]

Can You Sue the School? The Impact of Sovereign Immunity

In some states, it is not possible to sue any government entity, including a public school.[17] 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 (28 U.S.C.§ 2674), waiving sovereign immunity in some instances. Since then, most states have enacted laws that define the limits of sovereign immunity for state governmental entities and their employees. These laws provide a general waiver of immunity for certain actions or omissions of public agencies, including public schools.[18]

In most cases, a school will likely waive its sovereign immunity and agree to be sued if there is evidence of school negligence that resulted in student injury. Many cases are settled out of court. In cases where the school does not waive its sovereign immunity, parents of an injured student may choose to file a civil lawsuit against the parents of the student who caused the violence.

Pursuing a Claim With or Without an Attorney

Parents might choose to pursue a personal injury claim, on behalf of their child, without an attorney. This is likely when the student’s injuries are minor and the financial costs are low.

In the event of severe injuries and high costs, parents should seek the counsel of an attorney who has expertise in school law. A successful personal injury claim against a school district requires considerable resources and costs, such as expert witness fees, pretrial discovery costs, and private investigator fees.

Fortunately, most personal injury attorneys do not charge for initial office consultations, and the attorney is only paid if they succeed in settling the case or winning it at trial.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics
  2. The Seattle Times “Violence at schools often goes unreported” by Emily Hefter
  3. Center for Disease Control (CDC) “Injury Prevention and Control: Division of Violence Prevention”
  5. Teen Bully Info “Verbal Bullying”
  6. Teen Bully Info “Reactive Bullying”
  7. Teen Bully Info “Cyberbullying”
  8. Journal of Bullying and Social Aggression “The Socio-Emotional and Financial Costs of Bullying”
  9. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) School Violence: Data & Statistics
  10. Center For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Fact Sheet”
  11. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Understanding School Violence
  12. Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Youth Violence: Risk and Protective Factors
  13. Center for Disease Control and Prevention: “Understanding School Violence Fact Sheet”
  14. (Referrence no longer available.)
  15. About Education
  16. EDUCATOR-RESOURCES/Tort Liability 101: When are teachers liable?
  17. “Why It Is So Difficult to Successfully Sue Public Schools and Educators for Failing to Prevent Physical Harm, Including Bullying, to Students” by Michelle LeGault
  18. “Waivers of State Sovereign Immunity and the Ideology of the Eleventh Amendment” by Jonathan R. Siegel

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