“My child is being bullied at school. We reported it and it only made things worse. The school won’t tell me what’s going on. What now? How do I help my child?”
We regularly hear parents voice their concerns about their child’s well being in school as a result of misconduct perpetrated by his or her peers. Sometimes it’s subtle – not being invited to birthday parties, not being saved a seat on the bus or in the cafeteria and sometimes it’s more intense: name calling, rumors, pranks, whispers and stares. And other times it crosses the realm into criminal misconduct – physical assaults and destruction of personal property. Regardless of the degree, children feel vulnerable, and parents helpless, when they are victimized by their fellow students.
Andrea L. Gellen, an Education Lawyer at Stenger, Roberts, Davis & Diamond LLP (SDG Law), is currently litigating a case in state court against a Dutchess County school district on behalf of a student who was the victim of bullying at school. As a result, our client is now coping with anxiety, depression and academic difficulty. She left her public school to enter an alternative program. “It is sad to see when a child is affected so severely by something like this that could have been avoided had someone stepped. What is even more disconcerting is that the parents’ repeated pleas to the school district – for intervention, for supports, for remediation – fell on deaf ears,” says Gellen. Gellen has previously litigated in federal court on behalf of disabled children who were discriminated against and mistreated by their school district and its educators.
“Andrea is an amazingly kind and compassionate attorney especially when it comes to sensitive children’s issues such as bullying. She has a way of making the child feel safe and have their voice be heard,” says the mother of our client. Gellen explains that state and federal laws apply to bullying matters:
The New York State Dignity for All Students Act protects students in NYS public schools. It mandates that schools must do the following when bullying is reported:
- Issue a report, if warranted
- Put a plan into place to ensure the safety of the victimized student, if warranted.
The “plan” can be nearly anything the school comes up with. It can be an informal order of protection for the victim. It can recommend moving the perpetrator to a different bus and to different classes, or even a different building. It can recommend assigned seating for all students in a class or in a lunchroom.
While DASA appears promising on the surface, the reality is that there are no consequences for a school district that fails to comply with its obligations under DASA, and for that reason the law does not offer students meaningful protection, or recourse against school districts that fail to address bullying.
Federal discrimination laws offer another layer of protection to children who are members of protected classes (i.e., children who fall into any federally protected minority group). Federal discrimination laws often give parents more power and induce more vigilant supervision on the part of the school, as a parent may litigate in federal court if a child’s federal rights are violated by the school district.
What should you do to protect your child?
- Work cooperatively with the school district. DASA requires each district and building to have a designated DASA coordinator. Report allegations of bullying to this individual and follow up: what is s/he doing to address the issue? Has she determined that a formal investigation is necessary? Will a safety plan be implemented?
- Document everything. Take notes on every meeting and every phone conversation with any school district employee. Follow up phone conversations with emails summarizing conversations.
- Don’t be afraid to escalate the matter. If you are not having any luck with the DASA coordinator for your building, ask to be put in touch with the coordinator for your district.
- If all else fails, consider retaining counsel. It may be the case that the school needs a push from legal counsel to induce them to comply with their obligations.
While bullying has historically been and continues to be challenging for schools to address, we know a lot more about how to effectively intervene than we did years ago. Prompt and effective intervention is key to ensure your child has access to the safe and appropriate learning environment to which s/he is very much entitled.
If you have any questions or concerns about how your child is being treated, please contact Andrea L. Gellen via email here, or at 845-298-2000.