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Rights Watch - Confronting the Bullies

You can be sued personally for money damages if you witness instances of bullying and harassment and fail to act.


By Michael D. Simpson, NEA Office of General Counsel

Most school employees are now well aware of the epidemic of bullying and harassment that continues to plague our nation’s public schools. Last year, at least six teenagers committed suicide as the direct result of being bullied at school. It’s called “bullycide” and it has to stop. It is a moral and legal imperative.

What every NEA member needs to know is that you can be sued personally for money damages if you witness instances of bullying and various types of harassment (based on race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability) and fail to take action to address it or report it. While school districts have traditionally been the targets of these lawsuits, school employees, in increasing numbers, are also being named as defendants.

For example, NEA members in seven states (Washington, Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Alabama, and Michigan) have recently been sued for allegedly failing to act when they were aware of instances of bullying and harassment. In two lawsuits against NEA members in Kentucky, one involving a student suicide, NEA’s insurance carrier paid damages and expenses totaling $280,000 and $275,000 respectively.

What should a school employee do to help fight this national crisis and avoid being sued?

  • Make sure your school district has a strong anti-bullying and harassment policy in place, with clear guidance on how and to whom instances of bullying or harassment are to be reported.
  • Insist that your school district educate students about peer harassment.
  • Ask your school district to provide in-service training for teachers, education support professionals and other employees about how to spot bullying, how to respond, and to whom to report it, usually the Title IX co-coordinator.
  • Even if the student doesn’t want you to report the incident(s) to the administration, you still have a legal obligation to do so. And always put it in writing and keep a copy.
  • If you witness a bullying incident, intervene immediately. Tell the harasser that his or her behavior is not acceptable.
  • Finally, model good behavior. Remember, you are a role model to your students.

The Department of Education (ED) has taken a strong stand against bullying and harassment in schools. Last October, ED sent a comprehensive “Dear Colleague” letter to schools explaining their legal obligation under federal law to protect students from student-on-student harassment. The guidance provides examples and describes how schools should respond.

NEA's Human and Civil Rights department offers training to members through the National Bullying & Sexual Harassment Prevention and Intervention Program. This training is presented to affiliates and members. You can arrange for a presentation by contacting Joann Morris.

NEA has also launched a new campaign: “NEA's Bully Free: It Starts with Me,” which encourages members to be a caring adult who acts on behalf of bullied students.

NEA's Bully Free: It Starts With Me

Have you taken the NEA Bully Free pledge? Visit NEA's Bully Free: It Starts with Me website to take the pledge and find tips to eliminating bullying on your school campus.

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