Nearly a year after a surge of bullying-related teen suicides grabbed the nation's attention, a wave of lawsuits have been filed by parents, seeking protection of their children and other students from verbal and physical abuse at the hands of their peers.
Parents in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, New Jersey, Minnesota, and even Ontario, Canada, are taking the fight against bullying to court. While the National School Boards Association does not have any studies on the trend, Francisco Negron told USA Today "anecdotal evidence shows an obvious increase."
According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC), approximately 30 percent of American youth report moderate or frequent involvement in bullying in some capacity. Victims of bullying experience higher rates of loneliness, depression, school avoidance and suicidal ideation than their peers, the center reports.
David Finkelhor, CCRC director, says the lawsuits may be a result of increased awareness, among other factors.
Last year, the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyson Clementi, a closeted homosexual, revealed just how common youth suicides are among picked-on teenagers and children. Since Clementi's death, a number of states have adopted or strengthen their anti-bullying statutes.
However, Kathy Fong, associate director of youth empowerment group Community Matters, explains that parents of bullied children are resorting to legal action because they are frustrated that schools have failed to implement safeguards to minimize or prevent bullying.
For example, Texas parents Jon Timothy and Tami Carmichael filed a $20 million federal lawsuit against school officials in the Joshua Independent School District after their son 13-year-old Jon Carmichael hanged himself. They charged that the officials turned a blind eye as bullies held Jon upside-down in a toilet and flushed. The parents also allege that the bullies stripped their son naked and placed him in a trashcan
An Oregon family sued the Sherwood School District for more than $290,000 after a 15-year-old boy, identified only as DKL, punched their son, identified as MEL, in the face, breaking his nose and causing him to lose a tooth. Before the injury, DKL had been bullying MEL for more than a month. The parents charged that all of the adults should have known DKL "posed an immediate and continuous threat of intentional random violence, anti-social, disruptive and predatory behaviors."
Fong fears that bullying lawsuits may do more harm than good. The lawsuits do not result in any real winners, she said, adding, "The pain of the targeted children and their parents cannot be fully mitigated by courts finding in their favor."
In both cases parents, seemed to be using the legal system as a tool to force school districts to protect students from bullying. Fong said the cost of fighting and possibly losing these lawsuits puts additional financial strain on school districts already suffering with budget cuts.
"How much better spent those lawyers' and court fees would have been if school administrators had invested in programs," she said.
Jacquelyn Goss, spokeswoman for the Point Pleasant Borough School District in New Jersey, agrees. She told USA Today, "School funding is in crisis, and if you are spending any of your discretionary money on lawsuits, that's money that isn't going into education."
Non-profit groups are training students to take charge when they see students being bullied.
Kidpower, an international nonprofit, teaches child safety education and trains parents to address school bullying.
Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College, has also created a curriculum urging Christian teens to take the lead in protecting bullied youth.
"A middle school student who is bullied daily doesn't care about religious differences. He needs help," said Throckmorton.