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Bullying and accountability

By Jeff Terrill

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-04-20


Last year, my oldest child made a pledge in school that she would not engage in bullying. She was a third grader at the time. She wore a wristband in support of that cause. She filled me in with all of the great reasons why no one should ever bully someone else. Not only was she not going to bully, she was going to help stand up to bullying. I believed her. Why wouldn’t I?

A few days later, I overheard her at home teasing her little sister. I hollered her name and asked her about her pledge. She informed me that bullying is only something that can occur at school. She also told me that bullying doesn’t apply to sisters. I told her that she was wrong and to be nice to her sister.

In Indiana, “bullying” is defined as overt, repeated acts or gestures, including:
(1) verbal or written communications transmitted;
(2) physical acts committed; or
(3) any other behaviors committed;
by a student or group of students against another student with the intent to harass, ridicule, humiliate, intimidate, or harm the other student.

I guess my daughter had a point. The “bullying” statute is found within the portion of the Indiana Code that addresses laws involving education and student discipline. If the Legislature had intended the definition to apply to all people, regardless of age or location, the law would refer to a “person” or “people” and not just to “student” or “students.”

Pursuant to the Indiana Code’s “bullying” definition, a person who is not in school (or not a “student”) can’t bully or be bullied. “Bullying” is not a crime in Indiana. Now, a bully might engage in a criminal act when he or she batters, intimidates or harasses another person. There are laws that make it a crime to touch another person in a rude or angry manner. It’s a crime to use a telephone or computer to harass or annoy someone or to transmit an obscene message. It is also illegal to make threats of bodily harm to another or to place someone in fear for a prior lawful act. So a bully can be prosecuted, just not for “bullying.”

Over the years, I have gotten a lot of questions from parents about cyberbullying and how it can be stopped. With Facebook and Twitter and other social media, it has become even easier for a student to harass, humiliate and/or ridicule other students. Hostile exchanges that used to stay within the confines of a school building can now be transmitted throughout the electronic world within seconds. In recognition of the pitfalls associated with social media and the Internet, the Legislature now requires Indiana public school corporations to prohibit cyberbullying at school.

Indiana Code requires school corporations to adopt policies prohibiting bullying in school or at school functions. Accordingly, a student can be suspended or expelled from school for bullying. School corporations are also required to provide training for staff and students intended to prevent bullying, increase parental involvement and foster early intervention. The intention of the law is good. We all know schools can do more to protect kids from bullying. School faculty and staff should be diligent in their effort to address bullying events promptly and effectively.

A student who is found bullying another student will deservingly face consequences from the school and from his or her parents. A school, however, that fails to protect a student from being bullied might not have to worry about being held accountable. The same law that requires a school corporation to prohibit bullying states that noncompliance with that law may not give rise to a cause of action against the school corporation. In other words, a school that fails to follow that law can’t be held liable.

What would happen if the bullies couldn’t be held accountable?

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Jeff Terrill is a partner/shareholder with the law firm of Arnold Terrill Anzini, P.C. Mr. Terrill represents clients accused of crimes throughout northeast Indiana. You can contact Mr. Terrill with any questions or comments at his office at 260.420.7777 or via email at jterrill@fortwaynedefense.com. Learn more about his firm at www.fortwaynedefense.com. _This article expressed opinions and observations of the author, is not intended as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Please consult a qualified attorney with any legal questions or issues you might have. Thank you.

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