Bullying and its electronic cousin, cyber bullying, have emerged as major areas of liability for educational institutions. Many bullying lawsuits allege “deliberate indifference” as the factor in a school’s liability.
The legal standard, laid down in 1999 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Aurelia Davis et al. vs. Monroe County Board of Education et al., holds that a school is liable for damages if it fails to respond to known acts of harassment by one student against another student. This is considered creating an environment in which the victim is denied equal access to an education.
Schools may be held liable for not responding to claims of bullying, abuse
A school can be held liable if it is informed about the harassment and recklessly disregards the alleged perpetrator’s acts. At issue is the legal standard for many educational institutions where they must separate bullying from protected free speech.
There have been cases filed in which a school responded to the harassment, but did not go far enough to curtail the bullying in the view of the plaintiff. These cases show clearly that schools should carry insurance to aid in their defense when claims are made and lawsuits are filed.
With children engaging more and more in social networks via the Internet, U.S. courts find themselves handling suits that allege cyber bullying. Educational institutions are emphasizing loss prevention via: student and parent training and policies and incident reporting procedures. These measures will aid in prevention while also taking punitive responses that range from talks with parents to expulsion of student bullies.
School liability for bullying is expected to increase in coming years, largely because of the media attention on several troubling incidents. Among them was the suicide last year of a gay Rutgers University student, whose encounter with another male was secretly videotaped by a roommate and posted on the Internet. There was also the case of Karen Klein, a 68-year-old bus monitor being tormented and insulted on a school bus in Greece, a suburb of Rochester, New York, by four middle school students that became the center of national attention because one student videotaped the incident, which was also posted on the Internet.
Reducing in-person and electronic bullying at schools requires identifying and assessing the organization’s exposure to loss, instituting measures to reduce the risks, and buying liability insurance with appropriate terms, conditions and limits to absorb related exposures.