Could Schools Be Held Liable for Injury or Death Caused By Bullying?In recent years, several major bullying lawsuits have settled involving various California school districts. Bullying has become a major problem in schools throughout state and, if schools do not take action to stop it, they may pay for it in court.
“Taking measures to address bullying not only ensures a safe learning environment for our children but also prevents civil actions against school districts,” explained an Orange County injury attorney.
The extent of a school district's liability for bullying is an interesting question, given that the school district itself is not actually causing any direct harm to bully victims. In order for a school district to be legally and financially liable for an individual injured as a result of bullying, the school must have owed some legal duty and must have breached that duty.
There are several theories that support the idea that school districts should be liable to students when bullying is tolerated or ignored. Negligent supervision; violation of civil rights laws; and negligence per se may all apply to impose liability on a school district in bullying cases.
Negligent supervision cases arise from the premise that schools are in loco parentis, which means that the school assumes the duties and responsibilities that a parent normally has to care for, discipline, monitor and protect a child. The school therefore has a duty to the children who attend, and, if they are unreasonably negligent in fulfilling that duty, they should be held financially responsible for resulting consequences.
Civil rights violations are another possible source of legal liability. Both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act protect people from discrimination on the basis of their race, gender, religion, national origin and disability status. While these federal laws do not extend specific protection to people based on their sexual orientation, many states, including California, have civil laws protecting people from sex-orientation discrimination. Schools cannot allow students to be forced into a hostile environment or otherwise bullied on the basis of their protected status. If a school is aware of any type of discriminatory bullying because of someone's disability, gender or other protected status, the school must take action or puts itself at risk for liability.
A third and final theory used to hold a school district responsible in bullying cases is negligence per se. Under the legal doctrine of negligence per se, when a person or entity violates a law that was passed to promote safety, the violator can be considered automatically negligent in the eyes of the law. Since an anti-bullying law called Seth's Law was passed in the state of California in September of 2011, schools have had the legal obligation to create, post and enforce anti-bullying policies. Schools also must investigate allegations of bullying within a designated time frame. Thus, a school's failure to have a bullying policy in place or to investigate bullying incidents in a timely manner may be considered negligence per se and legal liability may be imposed.
While bullying often takes the greatest toll on the victims, the school districts supervising them do not escape its impact, which is all the more reason for them to take preventative actions.
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