Campaigns against youth bullying—some featuring prominent celebrities such as Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani—have brought the problem into the mainstream of public awareness in recent years. The increased attention has revealed that more work needs to be done to stop the behavior; a 2015 federal study found that more than one out of every five students in U.S. schools aged 12-18 reported they had been bullied at some point. The heightened awareness has also appeared to increase the number of lawsuits that educational institutions are being named in, prompting a school insurance claim. Such suits, despite their often heartbreaking scenarios, often face a long, hard road in the eyes of plaintiffs in light of current courtrooms’ general opinion on the role and responsibilities that schools have in youth bullying—a concept known as “deliberate indifference.”
An appellate court decision in a 2016 wrongful death suit held that, “The deliberate indifference standard set forth by the Supreme Court set a high bar for plaintiffs…it requires only that school administrators respond to known peer harassment in a manner that is not ‘clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.’” The suit stemmed from the suicide of an 8-year-old Tennessee boy who hung himself after two years of ceaseless bullying and assault, despite switching schools, the suit alleged.
In another case, an Ohio girl fatally shot herself after being the target of frequent racial and sexual slurs. A seventh grader in Mississippi died of injuries received from alleged bullying. And still another case in which a 14-year-old boy killed himself after relentless bullying occurred in Missouri. In each instance, parents sued the respective school district for failing to stop incidents of bullying that they were aware of—essentially enabling a treacherous environment by being “deliberately indifferent.” Such claims seek to establish school liability based on a 1999 Supreme Court ruling which specified knowledge of harassment and failure to do something about it as key elements of liability. However, not only has Supreme Court urged lower courts to be cautious in second-guessing the disciplinary actions of school administrators in bullying cases to enable them to be flexible in handling children’s sometimes fractious interactions, such cases often drag on for years until they are settled. For one thing, the link between school bullying and suicide has not been proven conclusively, say federal authorities, noting that studies indicate that while bullying increases the risk of suicidal behavior, most bullying cases do not result in suicidal thoughts, attempts, or actual suicide.
While courts have set a high bar in terms of making schools liable for tragic results of youth bullying, angry parents have nevertheless vowed to continue filing lawsuits against their school district on behalf of their bullied children, often saying their motivation is in large part to effect changes that will save other students from the same fate. “We want to open a Pandora’s box, we want to push against the hornet’s nest—we want to end this forever,” said the parent of a 12-year-old New Jersey girl who committed suicide after months of bullying at the hands of classmates. When plaintiffs prevail, the damages can be six figures or more, yet cannot begin to replace the loss of a child.
Youth bullying has the potential to yield disastrous and heartbreaking results for schools and educators, making it imperative for learning organizations to remain vigilant when it comes to student safety and adopt a zero-tolerance policy against bullying. Moreover, having the right Educational insurance program in place is essential to step in when a claim occurs. RPS provides insurance solutions for schools, with programs that can be designed to include General Liability, Educators Management Liability (including EPLI), Fiduciary, Excess Liability, and more. Contact us for more information.