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Litigating Bullying Cases: Holding School Districts and Officials Accountable

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By Adele Kimmel and Adrian Alvarez∗


I. Introduction
Bullying is devastating our children. It is hurting, traumatizing, and sometimes even killing our
kids. The consensus among physicians, social scientists, and educators alike is that bullying can
seriously impair the physical and psychological health of victims and their educational
achievement. The short- and long-term psychological impact alone can be highly destructive,
increasing the risk of suicide. Bullying needs to be treated as the serious problem it is, not as a
normal rite of passage to be left alone and endured.
Today we stand at a “tipping point” on bullying. Behaviors we once took for granted are no
longer acceptable. This normative shift is being reflected in state anti-bullying laws and courts
throughout the country. Forty-nine states now have anti-bullying laws that require schools to
take appropriate action to address and prevent bullying.1
Although there is no federal law that specifically applies to bullying, when harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex,
disability or religion, schools are obligated to address it.
Far too often, however, schools are not doing what the law and their own anti-bullying policies
require. In fact, half of our country’s school officials and teachers have not received training on
how to respond to bullying.2
And eight out of every ten times that a child gets bullied at school,
no adult intervenes.3

Public Justice has launched an Anti-Bullying Campaign to change this. Through litigation, we
intend to enforce the law, protect our nation’s children, and hold school districts and officials
accountable for failing to respond to bullying as they should. Because bullying litigation is an
emerging area of law, Public Justice has prepared this primer to help maximize attorneys’
effectiveness when representing bullying victims.4

First, this primer explains what “bullying” is—and what it isn’t. Because there is no definition
of bullying under federal law, and because a wave of recent anti-bullying legislation includes at
least 10 different definitions under state laws, it is helpful to start with a basic understanding of
bullying. This will help attorneys evaluate whether a plaintiff is a victim of bullying—or
something else.
Second, this primer provides an overview of federal legal theories available to school bullying
victims, which are generally much more developed than state legal theories. In addition to
discussing federal legal standards and remedies, this primer will discuss potential obstacles to
recovery, including immunity issues.

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