Disputes among children are inevitable in school. With all the reasons that children can conjure to disagree with each other, it is natural to expect that some of the disagreements would manifest themselves in the school setting, where children spend the majority of their waking hours each week. However, when disagreements extend into purposeful and systematic physical, verbal, or emotional torment, simple childhood disputes transform into bullying.
In a 12/16/13 Education Week article, Mark Walsh recounts the events of a Pennsylvania bullying case where the parents of a student who experienced significant bullying at Blackhawk High School sued the local school district. In the suit, the parents claimed that their daughter was denied her substantive-due-process rights under the 14th Amendment, after the parents withdrew their student from Blackhawk High School in response to a suggestion from school administrators.
Walsh noted that the “perpetrator” of the bullying, who physically assaulted the claimant in this suit, received significant discipline from the school because of her actions. The “perpetrator” was suspended from school. In addition, the “perpetrator” was also charged in juvenile court with assault, making terroristic threats, and harassment. Finally, the “perpetrator” was adjudicated delinquent and ordered to have no contact with the claimant. The “perpetrator” later returned to school and continued her bullying of the claimant in this court case.
At first glance, a casual observer might conclude that the school failed the claimant in this situation. However, in making no comment in its refusal to hear an appeal on this case the US Supreme Court supported the ruling of the lower Federal court as it recognized that “Parents . . . should be able to send their children off to school with some level of comfort that those children will be safe from bullies. Nonetheless, the Constitution does not provide Judicial remedies for every social ill.”
The Federal Appeal Court’s position in this case is the impetus for us as citizens, parents, and educators to reconsider our perspectives on ethical responsibility. The court system is not equipped or even perhaps purposed to handle the overwhelming wave of potential suits that could be brought to bare were it to begin ruling on routine school discipline and bullying cases. That said, without regard to the stated court ruling, the school district has an ethical and social responsibility to keep its students safe. The school district met these responsibilities through its discipline of the described “perpetrator” and by having the local authorities pursue the appropriate charges against the student. The fact that the “perpetrator” returned to school at a later date in time is also a routine matter in the sense that once a student has served his/her discipline they are allowed to return to school unless they have been permanently expelled. Compulsory student attendance laws in most states make this a routine matter of fact as well.
As parents, many of us might chafe at the idea of our child’s bully returning to school. Here again, we have an opportunity to examine the ethical and social responsibilities of all involved in a matter like this. First, the bully still has a right to an education. The school district is providing that. More directly though, children make mistakes, it’s a part of growing into adulthood. That said, the parents of the “perpetrator” have an ethical responsibility to help the child understand her mistakes and to consistently make better choices in the future. Also, if counseling is needed, the parents have an ethical responsibility there.
I’m sure many might still think, “What about the complainant and her parents? Where is their remedy in this?” We know the court’s position on the matter and the school district did take action against the “perpetrator.” Beyond this, there are no easy answers. In response, some might say that this case is symbolic of what is wrong with public schools today and they would pull their children out if something like this happened. In fact, the parents in this suit did pull their daughter out of the school based on the recommendation of Blackhawk High School officials.
Acknowledging the changing of schools and the later suit by the parents as an initial outcome in this case as potential commentary on public schools, we must also consider at least three additional points. First, there is no guarantee that any alternative school option will be devoid of issues like bullying that a parent might seek to escape in the public school setting. Second, the recommendation by the school for a different placement for the daughter was possibly made in an effort to remedy the immediate situation by having the parents at least consider other comparable options. Third, incidents just like this give us a chance to reflect on all of our responsibilities to make sure that we are doing our part as individuals to make our communities and our schools great.
In closing, public schools are the vehicle by which the mass portions of the citizens in the United States are educated. To ensure a strong and principled society, it will take all of us working together to inculcate values and overcome the challenges and obstacles that are inherent to the system.
Shawn McCollough President & CEO ABCTE