Addressing Bullying in Private Schools
Bullying in schools has become widely viewed as an urgent social, health, and education concern that has moved to the forefront of public debate on school legislation and policy. Increasingly, elected officials and members of the school community have come to view bullying as an extremely serious and often neglected issue facing youths and local school systems.
The Pennsylvania Legislature has enacted a law that addresses bullying in public schools. This law defines bullying as follows:
An intentional electronic, written, verbal or physical act, or a series of acts:
(1) directed at another student or students;
(2) which occurs in a school setting;
(3) that is severe, persistent or pervasive; and
(4) that has the effect of doing any of the following:
(i) substantially interfering with a student’s education;
(ii) creating a threatening environment; or
(iii) substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school; and “school setting” shall mean in the school, on school grounds, in school vehicles, at a designated bus stop or at any activity sponsored, supervised or sanctioned by the school.
24 P.S. § 13-1303.1-A (e)
The “bullying law” provides that “each school entity shall adopt a policy or amend its existing policy relating to bullying and incorporate the policy into the school entity’s code of student conduct.” 24 P.S. § 13-1303.1-A (a). Stated otherwise, the law requires public schools to develop and maintain policies prohibiting bullying. While the law requires public schools to address bullying, it did not create any enforcement provisions. Therefore, the bullying law fails to provide any legal recourse to students who are bullied in public schools that fail to create or adequately enforce their bullying policies. In addition, the bullying law was not made applicable to private schools.
Because the bullying law lacks any enforcement provisions, and the courts have refused to acknowledge that the United States Constitution protects students in public schools from bullying, many legal professionals have concluded there is very little they can do to combat bullying at schools.
Attorneys Edward Olds and Jaimie George have now struck out on a new path in the case filed against a private school in state court. The complaint alleges that their client, who was a thirteen year old girl at the time, was ostracized and subjected to verbal abuse for almost two months by the other students. This conduct caused severe and lasting emotional and related physical harm. Essentially the complaint sets out a pure negligence theory. Pointing to the Restatement (3rd) of Torts, Section 40, the Complaint contends that a private school has a special relationship with its students and that relationship imposes a duty of reasonable care with regard to risks that arise within the scope of the relationship. The Complaint asserts that the Pennsylvania legislature’s recognition that public schools have a duty to their students to prevent and address bullying, creates a similar duty for private schools. Olds and George assert that courts can enforce that duty and recognize a remedy for students who have been bullied while attending private schools using the Restatement (3rd) of Torts .
Unfortunately, bullying has become a commonplace occurrence in both public and private schools, and the risks associated with this form of misconduct can be devastating for a young person. The bullying law clearly reflects the recognition of the Pennsylvania Legislature that bullying represents a significant public health problem that must be addressed by schools through the development of policies and corresponding enforcement mechanisms. When a private school fails to have a policy and fails to correct bullying conduct it should liable in negligence, according to the complaint filed by Olds and George.
If you know a child who is being bullied at a private educational institution, contact us today to schedule a consultation.
Olds Russ Marquette & Peace, LLC is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the North Hills section of Allegheny County. The firm provides representation to clients in nearby communities such as Etna, Shaler, Allison Park, Westview, Glenshaw, Gibsonia, and Wexford, as well as clients throughout Western Pennsylvania.