Bullying in school has been around for as long as school itself, but the modern era has opened up all sorts of new challenges that educators must safeguard against, a school safety expert said at a workshop Tuesday for administrators, teachers and counselors.
"Outside of special education, bullying is the most heavily litigated piece of the school day," said Dennis Lewis of Springfield, Mo.-based Edu-Safe, a school safety consulting firm.
The event in Bakersfield was designed to give campus leaders the tools to return to their campuses and train others.
The horrific active shooter dramas that have played out across the nation -- including earlier this month at Taft Union High School -- are just one of many risks that can result from allowing bullying to go unchecked, Lewis said.
There also have been some high-profile suicides of students who felt persecuted at school. A wrongful death lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial later this year against the Tehachapi Unified School District. The suit was filed by the family of Seth Walsh, a gay middle schooler who hanged himself in 2010 after he was bullied at school over his sexual orientation.
Such tragedies have led to a huge increase in litigation, both from parents of bullying victims and from parents of bullies who believe their child was wrongly punished.
Then, too, there's the possibility of federal intervention if a student's civil rights are violated, Lewis said.
Tehachapi schools are under a federal mandate to implement a "Safe and Inclusive Schools" curriculum.
One of the difficulties schools have is defining bullying, which is hard to do because there are so many gray areas and often the bully and victim change roles, Lewis said. Sometimes, the bully in one incident is the victim in another incident, or vice versa.
Forty-nine states (all but Montana) have laws on the books about bullying, and every one of them defines it differently, Lewis said.
Researchers say for a problem to qualify as bullying, it must involve aggressive behavior or harmdoing, must be repeatedly carried out over time, and must involve an interpersonal relationship characterized by an imbalance of power, Lewis said.
The wisest schools are consistent in their response to unacceptable behavior, he said. Enforcing rules differently or infrequently is an invitation to trouble.
Schools have generally done a good job of clamping down on racial and ethnic slurs, Lewis said, but have been much more lax about language offensive to the gay community because it's so common in casual speech and gay rights are a hot button issue.
"I'm going to be blunt here," Lewis said. "You allow this kind of behavior from kids at your school, and you will find yourself in a courtroom setting. You're going to lose there. You're going to lose big."
The Internet and social media are another problem.
"The days are long passed when you can look a parent in the eye and say it didn't happen at school so we can't do anything about it," Lewis said.
The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't spoken on cyberbullying, but federal appellate courts have ruled pretty definitively that if off-campus activity leads to a "substantial" disruption to the educational climate or learning, then schools must address it, Lewis said.
There is one case the Supreme Court has weighed in on, however. In the 1999 case of Davis vs. the Monroe County Board of Education, a Georgia mother sued her school district after a student repeatedly groped her fifth-grade daughter at school.
The high court ruled that school districts are not immune from litigation if four criteria are met:
* The school has knowledge of harassment,
* is deliberately indifferent to harassment,
* exercises control over the harasser and the context in which it occurs,
* and the harassment is so severe that it deprives victims of access to the education and benefits the school provides.
Not only that, but more and more litigants are suing not only the school district, but individual district employees, Lewis said.
If that sounds scary, he said, don't get too worked up.
"The courts are looking for a way to support us," Lewis said. "They give us a lot of latitude. They just want to know that we're reasonable."
English teacher Eileen Poole of the Sierra Sands Unified School District in Ridgecrest said she found Lewis' presentation "informative and interesting."
Bullying is on everyone's mind because of all the tragedies in the news, she said, so it's good to have a base of knowledge for both preventing it and coping with it when it slips through.
Jose Garza, a school counselor with the Kern High School District, said he appreciated the legal information.
"It all serves to remind me that we have to be vigilant, and to make sure everyone is protected, and that's a good thing," he said.