Bullying has always been a problem in schools. But social media and ubiquitous smartphones have magnified and extended the reach of school bullies into every part of their victims’ lives. All states in the U.S. have some form of law or regulation to prohibit bullying or harassment in schools.
But there are some important differences from state to state—especially the varying levels of protection for particularly vulnerable groups like lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students. Read on for highlights of state laws on bullying and harassment in K-12 schools.
What Counts as Bullying?
Most of the rules on bullying in schools are found in state education laws or regulations. Typically, states require local school districts to develop policies and codes of conduct that prohibit bullying, harassment, and other kinds of intimidating behavior at school and during school-related activities. The definitions of bullying and harassment vary from state to state. Some states like Florida list specific bullying that inflicts physical harm or psychological distress, like teasing, threats, stalking, physical violence, theft, and humiliation. Others focus more on the impact of the bullying. New York, for instance, defines harassment and bullying as actions or threats that create a hostile environment and have or could have certain effects, including:
- substantial interference with the victims’ educational performance or opportunities
- serious harm to the victims’ mental, emotional or physical well-being
- making the victims fear for their physical safety, or
- serious disruption in the school environment (even when the bullying happens off campus).
(Fla. Stat. § 1006.147, N.Y. Educ. Law § 11.)
Some state laws distinguish between bullying and harassment, while others use the terms interchangeably or only mention one or the other.
As with everything else in young people’s lives and social interactions, more and more bullying takes place digitally—in texts, on social media, or through whatever is the latest app. Cyberbullying can take many forms, such as:
- threatening texts
- posting or texting nude or sexual images of someone without consent
- creating or posting to a “burn page” to spread derogatory rumors and insults, and
- creating a fake social media profile or an online impersonation to smear someone’s reputation.
Cyberbullying can be particularly harmful and difficult to stop for several reasons, including:
- Going viral. As other students re-tweet and re-post, one humiliating picture, threat, or rumor can quickly spread to most of the class or student body—and beyond.
- Students who might not be willing to bully in person can hide behind anonymous social media accounts to threaten and intimidate their classmates. This also makes it hard for school officials and parents to take action against the bullying.
- Pervasive and permanent. Even if the victims and their parents are able to get individual videos, pictures, and posts taken down (a cumbersome and difficult process), they never fully disappear and can haunt the victims for years to come. Cyberbullying can also have long-term effects on the bullies themselves—for instance, when colleges or future employers find the online trail of their youthful misconduct.
Almost all states specifically prohibit cyberbullying in schools. Many of these laws include electronic bullying of fellow students that originates off-campus—often with the condition that it could (or already did) disrupt school activities or interfere with the victim’s ability to participate in educational opportunities.
Bullying as Discrimination
Many states prohibit bullying or harassment in schools based on certain characteristics, like ethnicity, gender, or disability. Some of those states try to address bullying against LGBT students by including sexual orientation—and often gender identity or expression—in the protected characteristics. Other characteristics that some states mention in their anti-bullying rules include socioeconomic or immigration status, homelessness, or associating with students in a vulnerable group (like a straight student who hangs out with gay friends).
Even when state laws don’t list protected groups, federal law requires any schools receiving federal funding to take action to stop discriminatory harassment (based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion), if it’s so severe or persistent that it affects the victim’s ability to participate in school activities or opportunities.
What Must Schools Do About Bullying?
State educational laws or regulations generally require schools to adopt policies and take actions in response to bullying, which may include:
- prevention programs
- procedures for reporting incidents of bullying and investigating those reports
- notifying parents of the victim and the alleged bully
- appropriate discipline once school officials decide the bullying happened, and
- counseling and other services for the victim.
When Is Bullying a Crime?
Bullying is usually handled through school discipline. But bullies could find themselves in juvenile court if their behavior qualifies as criminal harassment, stalking (including cyberstalking), assault, or a hate crime. A few states have passed laws that criminalize cyberbullying of minors, but at least one of those laws has been struck down as an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights (State v. Bishop, 787 S.E.2d 814 (N.C. 2016)).
Under ordinances in some local communities, parents of bullies could face fines or even jail time.
Speaking With a Lawyer
If school officials haven’t taken any action to stop serious, ongoing bullying of your child, you may want to speak with a lawyer. An attorney experienced in education law could explain how the laws and regulations in your state and local school district apply to your situation, what you might do to force the school to take action, and what legal options might be available to you—including suing the school. And if your child is facing school punishment for alleged bullying, an education lawyer could give you advice on how to protect your child’s rights in disciplinary proceedings.