Education Law Insights

Must Schools Protect Teachers from Bullying by Students Online?

Posted by EdLaw on June 11, 2015

A lawsuit filed by a California teacher against the school district where she works puts a new spin on an old problem. As the National School Boards Association reported, the suit, filed last week by Amy Sulkis in the Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that her school district employer failed to adequately protect her from cyberbullying and online sexual harassment by students who, among other things, created a fake Twitter account in her name and sent out inappropriate Tweets. Legal scholarship has long recognized that although liability for student-on-student and teacher-on-student harassment has led to successful lawsuits against public schools, courts have been less inclined to extend protections to teachers who allege they are harassed by students. Sulkis’s lawsuit shows how these concerns can be compounded by the use of online social media such as Twitter, and creates a new wrinkle in the question of what schools are required to do when teachers complain about online harassment by students.

The Facts

According to CBS Los Angeles, Sulkis’s lawsuit reportedly alleges that the 16-year teaching veteran had an unblemished record and relationship with students until, in 2013, students created a false Twitter account in her name and sent out “disparaging and sexually suggestive statements” about her. A student who admitted to creating the account was initially given a two-day suspension, but after negotiations with the administration it was reduced to one day. Subsequently, students posted inappropriate and derogatory posts about Sulkis, but when Sulkis reported those posts to the administration she was told there was no available recourse. According to Sulkis, although she and her attorney asked for school-wide training for students on proper use of social media, that request was denied. A later post by a student allegedly included an image of Sulkis, an offensive caption, and a link to a pornographic Twitter page. Sulkis alleged that she was forced to take time off work to deal with the emotional distress and because she did not feel safe in her work environment. The lawsuit followed shortly thereafter. (more…)

How Lessons Learned From “Yik Yak” Can Help You Address The Next Novel Social Media Bullying Trend

Posted by Brian Crowley on March 10, 2014

The big news in education technology this week is Yik Yak, a free, anonymous social networking application that allows users to post comments that can be seen by others within a 5- to 10-mile radius. The app was intended for use by college students and is described as a localized Twitter for campus communities. But the anonymity of the app allows users to bully others without any risk of identification, and has led to reports of severe bullying in schools across the country. As the Chicago Tribune reported, Yik Yak disabled its app within the Chicago area after at least four schools had to address bullying concerns on the app with their students and parents.

One comment that has repeatedly been made about the recent Yik Yak scandal is that it shows how quickly social media moves and how difficult it is for school administrators to address new issues when they arise. For instance, the Yik Yak app only became popular within the last few months and so was not banned in many schools prior to these recent incidents. And even if banned and blocked through a school’s internet filters, if a school district allows students to access data plans on personal technology devices at school they still can access the app despite the filters and without school officials knowing.

The question arises, then: What can school leaders do to put themselves in the best position to deal with novel social media and technology issues when they arise? Here are a few ideas:

  1. In student handbooks or other informal guidelines, consider specifically banning student use of any social media program or other technology on school grounds or at school-related events and activities for the purpose of bullying other students. Also consider banning such use anywhere if it causes or reasonably could be foreseen to cause a material and substantial disruption to the school environment or invasion of rights of others in the school community. This way, discipline of perpetrators will be allowed even if a new program or technology used for bullying (such as Yik Yak) is not specifically prohibited and, if it is serious enough, even if it occurs off grounds.
  2. Also consider banning student use of data plans on personal technology devices at school. This will limit the circumstances when students can avoid a filter or other screening technology when implemented. It also allows school leaders to monitor student use of websites and technology through the Internet system, which is not possible when a student uses their own data plan.
  3. Educate students, parents, and other members of the school community about the harms that arise from bullying before an incident occurs. Such education should be broad enough to cover types of behavior that are now known or that may occur in the future. Your legal counsel is a good resource for training that meets these needs.
  4. Ensure that technology policies and procedures are up-to-date and broad enough to put the school district in the best position to address novel misconduct by students, staff, and other members of the school district community when it occurs. For school districts in Illinois, Franczek Radelet has a recent technology policy package created for that purpose.

USDOE Spanish Bullying Website Highlights Challenges in Addressing Bullying with LEP Students, Parents, Staff, and Community Members

Posted by Brian Crowley on February 11, 2013

The U.S. Department of Education has launched a Spanish-language website providing resources to teachers, parents, and community leaders to prevent bullying. The website is http://espanol.stopbullying.gov and is similar in content to its English-language counterpart, www.stopbullying.gov. This website is an important reminder of the intersection between challenges school districts face in addressing bullying and challenges they face in communicating effectively with Limited English Proficient (LEP) students and parents about important issues. Schools with large populations of parents and students with LEP should take steps to address bullying and provide bullying prevention education resources in relevant languages as well as in English.

The Illinois State Board of Education reported in its recent Superintendent’s Message that the Spanish-language “stopbullying” website includes the following resources:

  • Training Module with Speaker Notes – a presentation with suggested talking points, including the latest research to help participants create an action plan for a community event.
  • Training Module PowerPoint – a slide-by-slide presentation for use at a community event, workshop, or town hall meeting.
  • Community Action Toolkit – a supplemental guide, including tip sheets, a template event agenda, action planning matrix, and feedback forms.
  • Misdirections Packet – a Tip Sheet  and a Spanish transcript of the Misdirections video featuring Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, a national expert in bullying prevention who discusses approaches to avoid in bullying prevention and response.

The Spanish-language resource is a reflection of the challenges school districts face in juggling bullying concerns and concerns relating to communicating with English Language Learners and students and parents with LEP. When LEP students, parents, staff and community members are at issue, it can be even more difficult for school districts to comply with recent Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) requirements to prevent and address certain types of bullying, such as bullying based on ethnic background or race. For students and parents with linguistic challenges, this may include education on and responses to bullying in a language other than English.

Moreover, recent lawsuits make clear that educating staff and community members about bullying in schools and how to report it is important. Responding to such reports in a meaningful way is also important. One recent lawsuit reportedly filed by a former school district employee inArizona, for instance, alleges that the school district did not respond to her reports that an ELL student was being bullied for his strong accent, among other things.

DOE Guidance in Light of Bus Monitor Karen Klein Incident

Posted by Brian Crowley on August 20, 2012

With guest blogger Amy Dickerson

The story of Karen Klein, the now retired bus monitor from New York who was bullied by students on a school bus, gripped the country this summer. After a viral video of the incident was released, an internet campaign was launched soliciting donations to send Klein on vacation. As the LA Times reported, the campaign raised over half a million dollars.

Internet donors apparently weren’t the only ones paying attention. The Department of Education (DOE) issued a statement after the incident reminding schools of DOE resources to help create a safe and respectful environment on school busses. DOE’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students and the Safe and Supportive Schools Technical Assistance Center offer free presentations and related training modules which are must reads for school officials aiming to provide a respectful bus environment for back to school.