By Ken Sobel
I had my fair share of school yard fights. My opponents were the usual cast of characters – big guys who wanted to be “bigger· and smaller guys who wanted to be … “bigger: With guys, it was fairly simple – a few thrown punches. Mostly misses, a little blood, some bad feelings and then, at the end, some degree of mutual respect. Once the fight was over, it was typically over for good. Fighting was a sort of social climbing. My opponents and I didn’t always find our way to friendship. But what had started with some bad feelings and ended with a few bruises took nowhere near the toll of what occurs when teasing and threats become incessant and without end.
Excluding fights involving weapons, comparing the damage of physical fights, psychological bullying exacts a much greater emotional toll on children. When last studied, it was estimated that 160,000 children a day miss school for the sole reason of avoiding their bullies. Fortunately, I find myself in the strange position of praising something our state and county have done right. Florida passed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand up for all Students Act which strongly discourages and prohibits bullying in our public schools, grades K through 12. When combined with Florida Statute §784.04B which prohibits harassment and cyber-stalking, Florida has the tools to severely discourage bullying. Even better, on July 22, 2008. Broward County became the first county in the state to adopt an anti-bullying policy.
As our children get settled back in school this year, it may be good for us, their parents, to understand the law, both criminal and civil; and the criminal and civil penalties our children, our schools and we face if our kids violate the law and start bullying another student. Think this is silly and the law is paying too much attention to something we all had to deal with when we were kids? Think again. Think of the power a clique of girls can have when they engage in an instant messaging campaign designed to harass one of their classmates. Think misdemeanor. Add to that campaign a credible threat intended to scare a student into thinking they may have physical harm brought to them and then, think felony. These laws are real, and parents had better educate themselves. If the criminal law does not deter children, then perhaps this will deter their parents. If a minor injuries someone with aggressive physical or emotional conduct and their parents or their school know the aggressor has a history of having injured others in a substantially similar way, then those with knowledge who allow their “kids to be kids” – the parents, the school or both, can be held directly answerable for compensatory damages.
Years of abuse, suffered by tens of thousands of school children at the hands of their classmate tormentors has been met with years of indifference and ineffective approaches. Substantial school resources have been directed to addressing these situations on a case by case basis, without any standardized policies and deterrents. However, the tide has turned; and Broward County’s adoption of a County-wide plan to deal with bullying is to be applauded.
Responding to a state-wide law requiring every county to adopt a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, Broward’s embrace of this mandate may strongly combat bullying, which has been defined as “systemically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress: including “Teasing, Social exclusion, Threats, Intimidation, Stalking, Physical violence, Theft, Sexual, religious or racial harassment, Public humiliation or Destruction of property.
Further, the policy prevents harassment, which is defined “any threatening, insulting, or dehumanizing gesture, use of data or computer software, or written, verbal, or physical conduct directed against a student or school employee that places a student or school employee in reasonable fear of harm or damage to his property, substantially interferes with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits or substantially disrupts the orderly operation of school.”
The policy has an anti-retaliation provision and is tempered with punishment for students who falsely report bullying. Procedures have been enacted on how to promptly investigate complaints and when necessary, requires reporting to local law enforcement agencies, such as the school resource officer for criminal investigation. Reporting requirements will enable schools to be evaluated on how effectively they are responding to bullying and harassment.
While these laws are not going to totally end bullying and harassment, they will go a long way, especially if parents understand the law and teach their kids what is and is not acceptable. While it is often true that the bullies have themselves been bullied, it is also true that a large number of bullies only feel confident enough to perpetuate their ill deeds when they have an eager fan club egging them on and lending support. These silent co-conspirators who would ordinarily never knowingly try to hurt someone can easily get caught up in a bully gang bang, especially when they are young, insecure and looking for a place to fit in. These kids can be directed away from participating in bullying with some strong parental guidance. The school board has done its job. It is time for parents to do theirs.
For twelve years, Ken had been listed in The South Florida Legal Guide’s• “Top Lawyers.” He is also rated AV® Preeminent ™ by Martindale-Hubbell and his peers. This is the highest rating an attorney can attain. Ken is also a Florida “Super Lawyer, ” as elected by his peers for ten years in a row.
Ken has over 30 years experience, concentrating his practice in the area of personal injury, medical malpractice and other types of injuries caused by neglect. Sobel Legal, serving all of South Florida. You Pay No Fee Until We Win For You. Free Consultation email Ken@SobelLegal.com or Call 954-526-7007