Will suing schools stop students from bullying each other?

The Washington Post recently featured an article on the growing phenomenon of lawsuits against schools for failing to prevent the suicides of bullied students. Not only has the number of lawsuits been growing steadily, so have the settlement amounts, with a record of US $9.1 million. Even that is dwarfed by a recent $27 million settlement, not for a suicide, but for the death of a bullied student who was punched, fell, and hit his head on a concrete floor. And there is an ongoing suicide lawsuit asking for no less than $100 million.

No amount of money can compensate parents for the loss of a child. Furthermore, it is not financial gain they are pursuing, but the hope that the large penalties will scare schools into "finally" taking bullying seriously.

“It’s a wake-up call to schools around the country that unless you protect our children, you will be in the same position: You will be sued, and you will have to pay substantial amounts of money to settle those cases,” explained Bruce Nagel, the New Jersey attorney who obtained the record suicide settlement.

The unfounded expectations for anti-bullying policies

If schools deserve to be sued when bullying goes unstopped, we would assume that the anti-bullying policies schools are mandated to follow can reliably put a stop to bullying. Psychology’s “dirty little secret” is that they don’t. There's no reason to believe that lawsuits, no matter how numerous or humongous, can put a stop to bullying or reduce suicides. There are two things, though, that the lawsuits do accomplish.

One: they feed the increasingly lucrative niche of school bullying law. As the Washington Postarticle title tells us, “When bullied students end their lives, parents are suing. And schools are paying.”

Meanwhile, reporters neglect to point out that the allegedly negligent school administrators are not the ones who pay these huge sums. They couldn’t possibly afford them. Furthermore, as the article informs us, administrators almost universally deny responsibility in these settlements. The only reason they end up agreeing to the settlement amounts is that the rest of us pay for them via insurance policies.

Two: even worse, these lawsuits may actually intensify the bullying problem, which is perhaps why the suicide rate of bullied students skyrocketed during the very period that lawyers have been suing schools for failing to stop bullying.

Schools do not need to be intimidated by lawyers to begin taking bullying seriously. They’ve already been taking bullying seriously for a couple of decades. We need to recall that the massive movement to make schools bully-free is not new. It was launched a quarter century ago, in response to the horrific Columbine High School massacre of 1999, committed by two self-identified victims of bullying. In the ensuing years, all 50 states have passed school anti-bullying laws, holding schools legally responsible for protecting kids from bullying.

These laws were expected to be the most powerful weapon in the anti-bullying arsenal. School administrators were excited by their passage, thinking that they would give them teeth to put a stop bullying. Instead, they’ve discovered these laws only give parents teeth to sue them for failing to put a stop to bullying.

Yes, school administrators do take bullying seriously, even if only to avoid lawsuits (and that is rarely the impetus. They do care about children.) The problem is, anti-bullying laws are a Catch-22: the harder schools try to comply with them, the worse the bullying is likely to become. Administrators, though, are not likely to know this. As news of humongous settlements spread, fearful administrators will feel increasingly pressured to deal strictly with alleged bullies, and that is likely to make the bullying situations worse.

In fact, research has shown that the most highly touted anti-bullying programs, as well as anti-bullying laws, at best reduce bullying by only 10 to 20 percent, and often result in an increase. A large-scale metanalysis found that kids are more likely to be bullied in schools with anti-bullying programs than in schools without them. Ironically, schools are being sued for the ineffectiveness of the laws and interventions imposed upon them.

Explaining all the problems with anti-bullying laws, policies, and programs is beyond the scope of this article, though I go into depth here. But the number one problem can be gleaned from the recent victim himself. Drayke Hardman, before taking his life, told his mother something known by all socially savvy kids: “Snitches get stitches… Every time you tell the school and [my bully] gets in trouble, it’s worse.”

Of course, telling the school is the most fundamental of all anti-bullying instructions.



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How laws make bullying worse

This is how anti-bullying policies make the problem worse. Consider that you and I are classmates. You insult me, and I tell the teacher that you bullied me. You now get sent to the principal, who is required by law to conduct an investigation.

Will you admit that you’re guilty? You're almost certain to defend yourself and blame me. Will you like me better now? You are more likely to hate me and want to get revenge by doing something worse to me. You will tell our classmates that I am a snitch and they shouldn’t talk to me. And the more often I complain to the school about you, the worse my situation becomes.

A recent study has indeed verified that the kids who get bullied most intensely are the ones who inform the school most frequently. Finally, out of desperation, some of them resort to ending their misery by ending their lives.

One last comment about the Washington Post article. It mystifyingly informs us, “Experts point out that bullying does not ‘cause’ suicide, which typically happens for a complex set of reasons.”

If this is true, why are schools being sued for millions of dollars for suicides they didn’t cause?  

What is the best way to stop kids from bullying each other? Share your insights in the comments box below.  

Israel “Izzy” Kalman MS, NCSP is a luminary in the field of bullying. Slowly but surely, he has been changing the way the world understands and deals with bullying, exposing the problems with the predominant legalistic approach while promoting a more psychologically valid one. His work has been featured in major media, including the New York Times and Good Morning America.

The original version of this essay was published in Psychology Today and is republished with permission of the author.

Image credit: Bigstock  


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