Legal Duties for Schools in Addressing Student-on-Student Harms

Articles & Publications

April 20, 2015

In today’s public-school environment, the definition of bullying is constantly evolving. From a legal perspective, what is bullying and what may not be bullying seem to be viewed on a highly situational basis, depending on many factual issues and further, often varied factual accounts of an event or a series of events. Not only may physical altercations or namecalling on the school bus, playground or on social media be considered bullying, but also the actions of school staff and administrators in handling matters are within the ambit of this evolutionary term. Bullying may be difficult to judge and often appear most clear in hindsight, often cumulatively. As such, school districts must adapt their policies and practices to recognize bullying and to implement procedures that address bullying before the need for court intervention.

In order to shed light on the evolving ways in which bullying manifests, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) sent a "Dear Colleague Letter" dated Aug. 20, 2013, to provide an overview of a school district’s responsibilities relating to bullying, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the letter, bullying was defined for educators as "characterized by aggression used within a relationship where the aggressor(s) has more real or perceived power than the target, and the aggression is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying can involve overt physical behavior or verbal, emotional or social behaviors and can range from blatant aggression to far more subtle and covert behaviors. Cyberbullying or bullying through electronic technology, can include offensive text messages or emails, rumors, or embarrassing photographs posted on social networking sites, or fake online profiles."

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