In this two-part blog series, I look at how different laws and statutes can help students and parents address bullying in school. Recent cases in Massachusetts and New York federal courts have addressed bullying in schools, and in both cases, the students overcame legal arguments by their respective school districts.
The Massachusetts case addressed several laws, however, only the Title IX claim – the law that prohibits sex discrimination in school – survived a motion to dismiss by the school and will be allowed to proceed to trial. The New York case involves the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law applicable in all state special education matters. In that matter, the case proceeded all the way through hearing and appeals, and the district was held accountable. Bullying by classmate is the central theme in both cases; however, as with all bullying incidents, each case is unique. You can read more about Title IX claims in bullying cases in Part I of this series, which involved a regular education student. Part II of the series involves a special education case.
Special Education Considerations in Bullying Cases
The NY case is about L.K., an elementary school student with learning disabilities on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP is developed when a student is found to have an educational disability, and is eligible for special education services. The hallmark of special education is the school district’s obligation to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which is tied to the services to be provided by way of the IEP. Because FAPE is a federal, not state law, though this case is out of NY, it has broad jurisdictional implications.
History of Bullying in School
L.K’s third grade classmates bullied and taunted her, most of which took place in the classroom on a nearly daily basis. The students refused to touch a pencil that L.K. first touched, backed away from her to avoid touching her, tripped her, laughed at her, called her names, and ostracized her. One student stomped on L.K.’s toes, another drew a demeaning picture of her, and another prank called her house. Unlike Noelle’s case discussed in Part I of this series, this case involved a single school year; however, the teachers did almost nothing to stop the bullying, including a refusal to intervene or punish the students who bullied L.K.
The bullying affected L.K. in that she came home crying almost every day, could not concentrate at school, could not stay on task with assignments, volunteered less in class, was frequently late to school, and brought dolls to school for support. However, when L.K.’s parents raised the issue of bullying with the school, the school ignored their requests, and refused to enter into a discussion with the parents about the bullying. What ultimately led to the district’s downfall in this case was their refusal to discuss the bullying during an IEP meeting with the parents.
Free Appropriate Public Education Denied When School Refuses to Discuss Bullying
Though L.K. lost her case at the initial hearing and review levels, her parents appealed, and the appeals court held that the NYC Department of Education denied L.K. FAPE because it refused to discuss the issue of bullying with her parents while developing her IEP. The court found that the parents were not allowed to be in the decision making process of the IEP.
Because L.K., who was learning disabled, was severely bullied, her ability to learn and pay attention was affected, and could have interfered with her ability to receive FAPE. The court, however, did not address the issue of whether L.K. was denied FAPE because of the bullying. Rather, the court found that because the school denied the parents the opportunity to address the bullying at the team meeting in preparing the IEP, the school denied FAPE. According to federal law, parents have a right to participate in the development of their child’s IEP. By denying these parents the opportunity to discuss the bullying, the district denied them the right to participate in the development of the IEP. Moreover, as parents are allowed to accept or reject the IEP, in whole or in part, they must be able to ascertain whether they feel the IEP is adequate to address the child’s needs. Here, the district prevented the parents from determining whether the IEP was adequate.
It is important to note that in this case, the finding was based on a special education statute. Had this bullying been endured by a regular education student, the analysis and legal predicate would be quite different. The lesson learned is that the development of the IEP is a significant step in providing federally mandated FAPE to a student, and that schools must be careful to address all parental concerns during any IEP meeting.
Bullying Court Cases
- The U.S. District Court in Massachusetts (Harrington v. City of Attleboro, et al, 15-cv-12769-DJC)
- The U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit (NY) (T.K. and S.K v. New York City Department of Education, 14-3078-cv)
About the Author
Andra J. Hutchins has 20 years of experience representing students and families in the areas of education law, including bullying, special education, school discipline, suspensions and expulsions, and child placement. Her practice also includes domestic relations, employment law, business litigation and professional licensure matters.