Bullying victims and their families have increasingly turned to the legal system for recourse
DES MOINES — In the days following her son’s suicide, Jeannie Chambers told a television reporter from Sioux City’s KITV that she wasn’t sure if she wanted charges filed against the classmates who bullied her boy.
Chambers’ son, Kenneth Weishuhn, was 14-years-old when he killed himself April 15. His death inspired rallies and candlelight vigils across the state and reignited a debate about bullying, responsibility and liability.
Chambers’ reason behind her indecisiveness seemed altruistic. She told the interviewer she didn’t want another mother to lose a child.
But bullying victims and their families have increasingly turned to the legal system for recourse. They’re going beyond pushing for criminal charges and civil penalties against bullies: they’re taking on school systems — and winning.
“In general, more of these types of lawsuits are being filed, and the courts are coming out with stronger opinions,” said Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who specializes in civil rights cases.
“There’s also an overall societal consciousness about bullying and the lawsuits in general, so that’s another reason why it could seem they are happening more frequently,” Wolfe said.
In 1994, Jamie Nabozny sued his Ashland, Wis., school district with the help of attorneys from Lambda Legal, claiming the district didn’t do enough to stop other students from harassing him because of his sexual orientation, despite pleas.
In one incident, Nabozny was beaten outside the school library by a group of students, causing internal bleeding that led to a hospital stay for the teen. When he reported the beating to a school official, according to court documents, “the school official supposedly in charge of disciplining, laughed and told Nabozny that Nabozny deserved such treatment because he is gay.”
In 1996, the federal appeals court overturned a lower court decision and found that the school district was liable in the case. The district offered an out-of-court $900,000 settlement, which Nabozny accepted.
It was a landmark case that gave advocacy groups a cudgel to use against non-responsive school districts.
Since then, actions have been brought against school districts in New York, Minnesota and California that resulted in them paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars and/or agreeing to additional staff training and policy changes.
“Lawsuits are a last resort in severe cases where school districts are not living up to their responsibilities,” Andy Mara, public relations manager for the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, said in an email statement. “But lawsuits indicate that the system is broken, and all parties have already lost in some sense.”
Weishuhn was a student at South O’Brien High School in Paullina. School officials have been careful about talking publicly about his death even as the story has drawn national attention.