School Bullying

Phoebe Prince was a fifteen-year old girl who had moved from Ireland to attend South Hadley High School in Massachusetts.[1]  Instead of enjoying her teen years, however, she was for several months relentlessly tormented by classmates.[2] Despite months of verbal and social media attacks by other students—she was called an “Irish slut” and “whore,” had her books routinely knocked out of her hands and received threatening text messages—the school failed to take action, even as Phoebe informed administrators about the bullying.[3] On January 14, 2010, after a classmate threw a Red Bull can at her from a car while she was walking back from school, Phoebe hung herself in a stairwell.[4]

Phoebe’s suicide stands as a tragic testament to the negative impact bullying may have on students. Connecticut, as other states, is not immune to such tragedies. In 2002, a Meriden high school student killed himself after enduring months of verbal and physical abuse.[5] Even when bullying does not drive students to suicide, it may have other harmful effects. According to a recent survey, Connecticut high school students who admitted to being bullied are more likely to experience depression, sleep less, skip school and attempt suicide.[6] Fortunately, both Connecticut and the federal government have recognized the impact of bullying and have made genuine efforts to address the problem. While there are currently no federal anti-bullying laws, the U.S. Department of Education has, among other things, created a federal task force to elicit ideas from the public, held a bullying summit, and sent a “Dear Colleagues” letter reminding schools that they may be liable under federal civil rights laws for bullying among students.

For its part, Connecticut passed a sweeping anti-bullying law, which took effect on July 1, 2011, expanding school staff training, addressing cyber-bullying, devising statewide assessments, and delineating further responsibilities for schools. This section will examine the new law in detail. The first part of this section will provide parents with an overview of what actions constitute bullying.  The General Assembly has outlined specific criteria and listed a number of actions that would qualify as bullying, including cyber-bullying. However, parents should not limit themselves to the language of the statute. They should consult the school handbook and the record of verified acts of bullying (described below) for more specific information.

The second part of this section will describe the state procedures by which parents and students can inform the school about bullying incidents. Next, we will outline the school’s responsibilities under the law, including investigation of bullying complaints, training for school staff, and steps to monitor and improve the effectiveness of school anti-bullying plans. We will conclude by discussing what state and federal legal claims parents can pursue on behalf of their child if the school fails to discharge its responsibilities with respect to preventing or stopping bullying and providing a safe school environment.

What kind of actions qualify as bullying?

Starting July 1, 2011, the General Assembly redefined bullying as “the repeated use of a written, oral or electronic communication or physical act by one or more students directed at another student within the same school district which:

  1. Physically or emotionally harms the student or damages that student’s property;
  2. Places such student in reasonable fear of harm to himself or herself, or of damage to his or her property;
  3. Creates a hostile school environment for that student;
  4. Infringes on that student’s rights at school; or
  5. Substantially disrupts the educational process or the orderly operation of the school.”[7]

Building on federal civil rights laws, the General Assembly has also clarified that bullying based on any of the following traits would also fall under the definition:

  • Race or color
  • Religion
  • Ancestry
  • National origin
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity or expression
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Academic status
  • Physical appearance
  • Mental, physical, development or sensory disability [8]

Perhaps most importantly, the General Assembly has honed in on cyber-bullying, which is “any act of bullying through the use of the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, cellular mobile telephone or other mobile electronic devices or any electronic communications.”[9] Under the definition, the use of email, text messages, and live web streams by a student or group of students to ridicule or humiliate another student would be considered cyber-bullying.

Nevertheless, parents should still consult the school’s bullying policy for more detail as to what behavior qualifies as bullying since districts and local boards may have modified the definition. Parents can usually find the policy in the school handbook or on the school website.[10] If the policy is not available in the school publication or website, parents should ask for a copy of the policy, which the school is required to provide immediately upon request.[11]

The local board also must establish a procedure for each school to maintain reports of bullying in the school and maintain a list of verified acts of bullying, which they also have to make available to parents.[12] The list, at a minimum, should provide some details on each individual act. Regardless of the format, the school cannot include the names of any students involved in the action under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). The federal act also forbids schools from informing parents about the consequences imposed upon the bullying child.[13]

How can parents inform schools that their child is being bullied?

As part of a required safe school climate plan, the local or regional board of education must have a process in place for students to anonymously report to school employees acts of bullying.[14] Under the statute, “school employees” include a teacher, substitute teacher, school administrator, school superintendent, guidance counselor, psychologist, social worker, nurse, physician, paraprofessional, or anyone who has regular contact with students through the performance of his or her duties.[15] The board must notify parents annually about the process by which students can make such reports.[16]

Because students are often and understandably scared to report these acts for fear of retaliation, the board must also provide a way for parents or guardians of the afflicted students to file written reports of suspected bullying.[17] Moreover, any school employee who witnesses an act of bullying or receives word from a student of such an occurrence must notify the safe school climate specialist (who we will discuss later on in the section) or another school administrator if the climate specialist is not available, no later than the next school day after the bullying takes place.[18] The school employee must file a written report within two days after the bullying incident.[19]

To encourage people to report acts of bullying, the statute insulates school employees, students, and parents from any resulting lawsuits provided they follow the relevant provisions outlined in the statute and act in good faith. This immunity extends to local boards that are making good-faith efforts to implement a safe school climate plan or investigate bullying incidents. This immunity does not attach if their actions were reckless, willful, or wanton.[20]

Before filing a bullying complaint, parents should consider meeting with administrators or teachers to discuss the bullying incident. Given the immediate and harmful impact that bullying has on a child, parents should involve the relevant school authorities as fully and early as possible.  If parents and school officials cannot informally resolve the situation, parents should file a formal complaint. Prior to filing, parents should gather as much documentation as possible. Documents reflecting conversations that parents have had with their child and/or the bully, relevant written communications with school staff, messages passed around the Internet, accounts of previous attempts to address the situation, and expert evaluations from social workers, physicians, or counselors would assist parents in making a strong case on behalf of their child.[21]

Parents should specifically cite to and make clear that they are invoking both the Connecticut anti-bullying law and the specific policy of the school district. It is important to spell out the bullying incident in as much factual detail as possible, including the names, dates, locations, nature and the length of time of the bullying.  Finally, parents should address the complaint to the school principal, with copies to teachers, the local board, social workers and counselors.[22]

Once parents file the complaint, it is the obligation of the school to ensure the safety of the student who is being bullied. To ensure that the school is working towards this goal, parents should consult frequently with the relevant school staff as to what steps it is taking to address the issue and assess the success of such efforts.

What are the school’s obligations in addressing bullying?

Each local or regional board of education must approve of a safe school climate plan and submit it to the State Department of Education for approval no later than January 1, 2012.[23]

Within thirty days after approval, the board must post the plan on its and each school’s website, and publish the plan in any school district publications or school handbooks.[24]

The plan’s requirements can be broken down into three general components:

  1. The investigation and resolution process for handling bullying complaints;
  2. The specific bullying training school staff must undergo; and
  3. Steps to track and improve anti-bullying plans.

Investigation and Resolution Process for Bullying Complaints

The plan calls for a “safe school climate specialist” in every school, who must be the principal or the principal’s designee.[25]  The climate specialist is responsible for supervising the investigation of all reports of bullying immediately after receiving the written report.[26] While the climate specialist can review anonymous reports by students, he or she cannot discipline the bullying student on the basis of such reports.[27] No later than 48 hours after the investigation, the school must notify both the bullying student and the bullied student and invite them to at least one meeting to discuss what steps the school is taking to protect the victim and prevent future incidents from taking place.[28]

The board must also develop a “prevention and intervention strategy” for school employees to deal with issues related to bullying.[29] The General Assembly does not bind the school to any specific requirements, but issues some recommendations for schools to consider when formulating a strategy. For example, schools may implement behavioral support programs or other evidence-based model approaches to ensure a safe school climate or to prevent bullying.  Schools should also devise clear anti-bullying rules, outline appropriate consequences for such actions, and have adults present to supervise students in specific areas where such incidents are likely to occur. Other recommendations include school-wide training, student peer training, education and support, and policies to increase parent involvement in bullying prevention.[30]

Because every bullying incident is different, the statute authorizes the board to initiate case-by-case interventions to address repeated acts of bullying committed by a student or directed against a student.[31] In cases where the principal believes that the bullying student is engaging in criminal conduct, he or she must report the misconduct to local law enforcement authorities.[32]

On a more general level, the superintendent of each local or regional board of education must appoint from existing staff a safe school climate coordinator to oversee the climate specialist in each school within the district.[33] The coordinator is primarily responsible for implementing the safe school climate plan.  To that end, the coordinator must collaborate with climate specialists, the board, and the superintendent to identify and respond to bullying in the schools of the district. At a minimum, the coordinator must meet with climate specialists at least twice during the school year to discuss bullying issues, and any recommendations to amend the district’s current plan.  The coordinator also must collaborate with the superintendent to provide data and information with respect to bullying within their school district.[34]

Training and Plans for School Staff

To better identify and address the problem of bullying within schools, the statute requires that all school employees complete a training program run by the State Department of Education on youth suicide prevention and bullying. All state school employees must go through this program annually unless they have a valid bullying certification.[35] The General Assembly does not outline requirements for the program, but does offer the following guidelines as to what should be included:

  • Appropriate strategies to prevent bullying among students in school and outside of the school setting;
  • Appropriate strategies for immediate interventions to stop bullying;
  • Information concerning the interaction and relationship of students committing acts of bullying and students who are the victims of bullying;
  • Findings on bullying, such as information about the types of students who are at-risk for bullying in the school setting;
  • Information pertaining to cyber-bullying, including related Internet safety issues; and
  • Information on youth suicide, ways to identify youth at risk of suicide and strategies for preventing it.[36]

As a closing note, the training may be presented in person by mentors, offered in state-wide workshops or through online courses.[37]

State Requirements to Monitor and Improve Bullying Plans

The General Assembly has prescribed requirements to monitor the progress of and improve upon existing bullying plans. Starting July 1, 2012, a school principal must establish a committee or designate an existing committee from the school to foster a safe school climate and address issues related to bullying in the school.[38] The committee, drawing upon investigative bullying reports from the schools, is responsible for identifying and addressing patterns of bullying among students, as well as reviewing and amending school bullying policies. The committee also must make recommendations on school climate issues and collaborate with the safe school climate coordinator to collect data on these incidents.[39] To ensure a more balanced viewpoint on these issues, at least one parent or guardian of a student in the school must be on the committee.[40] The parent participates in all the committee activities outlined above except for receiving copies of bullying reports, identifying and addressing bullying among students in the school, or any other activities that may compromise the confidentiality of a student.[41]

On a broader level, the statute gives the State Department of Education oversight into tracking and evaluating each school’s anti-bullying plans. The Department is responsible for collecting information about school prevention efforts and intervention strategies to reduce bullying and documenting school districts’ needs for training assistance to deal with the problem.[42] Based on the data it collects and other information, the department must develop or recommend a model safe school climate plan applicable to grades kindergarten to twelve.[43] Beginning February 1, 2010, and every two years thereafter, the department must submit to the General Assembly a status report that should include the number of verified acts of bullying in the state, analysis of action taken by school districts, and other recommendations for preventing bullying.[44]

Can parents file a federal claim against the school if their child is a bullying victim?

Though there are no federal anti-bullying laws, the United States Department of Education (DOE) recently sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to all boards of education throughout the country advocating a more forceful approach to addressing bullying in schools.[45]  In the letter, the DOE acknowledged that bullying “fosters a climate of fear and disrespect that can…impair the physical and psychological health of its victims” and “negatively affect learning.”[46] More tellingly, the DOE noted that certain student misbehavior that violates a school’s anti-bullying policy could also trigger liability under federal anti-discrimination laws enforced by the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).[47]

Within the DOE, OCR is responsible for enforcing within a school setting, federal statutes prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, and disabilities. While the OCR does not explicitly pursue discrimination claims based on religion, it noted that many religious groups face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, thereby invoking a civil rights statute that is covered by OCR.  OCR has decreed that if a school encourages, tolerates, fails to adequately address, or ignores peer harassment based on the traits mentioned above at a level sufficient to create a hostile school environment, the school staff may be liable under the statutes enforced by the OCR.[48] As a general proposition, a school may be liable if it fails to address harassment incidents about which it knows or should have known. The school may be deemed to be on notice if the harassment was in plain sight, widespread, or well known to the staff, such as harassment occurring in hallways, recess, or on the school bus. The school may also be put on notice if a responsible employee knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known about the harassment. An example of this is when a student or another person informed the employee about the bullying and that employee did not inform the administration about the incident.[49]

The DOE letter sets forth four major responsibilities that schools must undertake to address discrimination against students in the school. First, when responding to harassment, the school must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate the situation. Though the specific steps will depend on factors such as the nature of the allegations, the age of the student(s) involved, and the size of the school, the school’s investigation must be prompt, comprehensive, and impartial.[50]

Second, once the school determines that harassment did occur, it must take effective steps to end the harassment. Appropriate steps include separating the bully and the target, providing counseling for one or both of the students implicated in the matter, and taking disciplinary measures against the harasser. The letter emphasizes that the school must not penalize the student who was harassed.[51]

Third, the school must take action to eliminate the hostile environment and its effects. To that end, schools may need to provide training or offer other intervention programs to the harassers, and on a broader level, to students, families, and school staff in the larger school community. It may also be necessary for the school to issue new policies against harassment and reporting procedures to respond to the problem. The school must provide additional services to the harassed student, especially if the school was late to respond to the incident.[52]

Finally, the school must take steps to prevent future harassment and retaliation against the person filing the complaint.  At a minimum, the school must reach out to harassed students and their families concerning how to report future incidents, follow up with them regarding any new harassment actions, and promptly respond to related problems as they arise.[53]

As a final note, a school is required to discharge these duties if the misconduct falls under the anti-bullying policy, regardless of whether the student complained, requested the school to take action, or claimed that the misconduct was anti-discriminatory.[54]

Can parents file a state claim against the school if their child is a bullying victim?

Under Connecticut law, there is no definitive answer as to when a school may be liable for an act of student bullying.  We will outline the legal requirements and challenges parents may face in pursuing a negligence claim against the school. Whether a parent can prevail on such a claim is dependent on the unique facts and circumstances surrounding their child’s case. Therefore, it is best to consult with an attorney before contemplating a negligence claim.

Ministerial Actions

Municipal employees, including public school personnel, may be held liable for failing to adequately perform ministerial duties.  Courts have generally characterized ministerial actions as prescribed actions that do not involve the exercise of judgment or discretion.[55] These types of actions are usually secondary in nature and executed according to established policy, rule or practice.[56] Examples of ministerial acts include a school’s failure to inspect and keep hallways clean pursuant to a board of education bulletin or the absence of adult supervision during recess.[57]

The Connecticut courts appear to be divided as to whether a school’s failure to take action against bullying when it knew or should have known about the misconduct constitutes a misperformance of a ministerial function. In one case, a parent filed a lawsuit against the local board of education, the school principal, and school athletics personnel after the student claimed that he had been bullied and harassed by other teammates during an after school high school program.[58] The court held that the failure of school employees to guarantee the student would not be bullied or harassed during a voluntary after-school program was not a misperformance of a ministerial action.[59]

The court ruled differently in another case when a student who had been teased on a daily basis had an object thrown at her head, causing severe brain injuries.[60]  After the incident, the parents filed a negligence claim against the town, the local board of education and the school, alleging that they failed to follow their anti-bullying plan.[61] Because the school had prescribed detailed procedures for teachers and administrators to handle bullying incidents, the court reasoned that their related actions could be ministerial in nature and allowed the parent to proceed to trial under that theory.[62]

While no two bullying incidents are alike, whether a particular action is ministerial is dependent on the level of detail in that school’s anti-bullying plan. A parent will likely have a better chance to prevail on a negligence claim under a “ministerial action” theory if the school fails to discharge a responsibility that was spelled out in the plan in such exquisite detail that it eliminated or marginalized a school employee’s judgment or discretion. Since the revised state law mandates much more specific procedures for school employees to follow, some of these actions may be found to constitute ministerial functions. Given the recency of the law, it remains to be seen whether a court would adopt this view with respect to the actions outlined in the statute.

Governmental Actions

Municipal employees are granted qualified immunity with respect to performance of governmental acts, which are actions that benefit the public and are discretionary or supervisory in nature.[63] Generally, there are three exceptions to the granting of this immunity: (1) actions that involve malice or intent to injure; (2) statutory causes of action against the municipal employee; or (3) a public employee’s failure to act directed at an identifiable person subject to imminent harm.[64] The first two exceptions are self-explanatory, and most actions against schools for failing to prevent bullying do not involve them. Therefore, we will focus on the third exception.

To satisfy the third exception, so as to deprive a municipal employee of qualified immunity, plaintiffs have to show that there is (1) an identifiable victim; (2) imminent harm; and (3) a public official to whom it is apparent that his or her conduct is likely to subject that victim to harm.[65]  For school purposes, an identifiable person has traditionally included schoolchildren attending school during school hours.[66]  One Connecticut court, however, seemed to expand on this definition when it noted that a person could be considered an identifiable person if he or she was exposed to imminent harm (which we will discuss in more detail below). The court also noted that Connecticut appellate courts have relaxed the definition of “identifiable person” for schoolchildren and identified them as a “foreseeable class to be protected.”[67]

To satisfy the “imminent harm” element, the particular misconduct must be limited in time and geographical area.[68] With respect to the time component, the action must be temporal or of short duration. Risks that might occur at some unspecified time in the future do not constitute imminent harm.  In applying this definition, one court has held that an incident where a student tripped another student during recess did meet the requirement because recess was a defined period of time that took place after lunch every school day.[69]  Another court held differently when a male student made a series of sexual threats and advances to a female student because the actions complained of occurred during different school years.[70] In terms of the geographical area, the conduct has to be confined to a specific location. Therefore, if the action has the potential to occur at multiple places, then it would not constitute imminent harm.[71]

As indicated above, the presence or absence of qualified immunity is a highly fact-specific inquiry. Therefore, if parents want to proceed with this claim against school officials, it would be best to consult with an attorney to evaluate the respective strengths and weaknesses of such a claim.


[1] Helen Kennedy, Phoebe Prince, South Hadley High School’s “New Girl,” Driven to Suicide by Teenage Cyber Bullies, N.Y. Daily News (Mar. 29, 2010), nydailynews.com.

[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Elaine Zimmerman and Thomas Brooks, Connecticut Cannot Lose More Children to Bullying, Connecticut Mirror (May 19, 2011), http://www.ctmirror.org/node/12641.
[6] Connecticut Commission on Children, Anti-Bullying Law Becomes Law 1 (2011).
[7] 2011 Conn. Pub. Acts 11-232, § 1(a)(1).
[8] Id. 11-232 § 1(1)(v).
[9] Id. 11-232, § 1(a)(2).
[10] CT State Dep’t of Educ., Bullying and Harassment in Connecticut: A Guide for Parents and Guardians, 5 (2010).
[11] Id.
[12] Conn. Pub. Acts. 11-232, § 1(b)(10).
[13] 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(a)(1)(A)(2010).
[14] Conn. Pub. Acts. 11-232, § 1(b)(1).
[15] Id. 11-232 § 1(a)(7).
[16] Id. 11-232 § 1(b)(1).
[17] Id. 11-232 § 1(b)(2).
[18] Id. 11-232 § 1(b)(3).
[19] Id.
[20] Id. 11-232 § 10.
[21] CT. State Dep’t of Educ., Bullying and Harassment in Connecticut: A Guide for Parents and Guardians, at 7-8.
[22] Id.
[23] Conn. Pub. Acts. 11-232, § 1(c).
[24] Id.
[25] Id. 11-232 § 9(b).
[26] Id.
[27] Id. 11-232, § 1(b)(5).
[28] Id. 11-232, § 1(b)(8)(9).
[29] Id. 11-232, § 2.
[30] Id.
[31] Id. 11-232, § 1(b)(11).
[32] Id. 11-232, § 1(b)(14).
[33] Id. 11-232, § 9(a).
[34] Id.
[35] Id. 11-232 § 6.
[36] Id.
[37] Id. 11-232, § 6(7).
[38] Id. 11-232, § 9(c)(1).
[39] Id. 11-232, § 9(c)(2).
[40] Id. 11-232, § 9(c)(1).
[41] Id. 11-232, § 9(c)(3).
[42] Id. 11-232, § 3(a)(1)-(2).
[43] Id. 11-232, § 3(a)(3).
[44] Id. 11-232, § 1(a)(4).
[45] U.S. Dep’t of Educ., Office for Civil Rights, Dear Colleague Letter 2 (2010).
[46] Id.
[47] Id.
[48] Id. at 1-2.
[49] Id. at 2.
[50] Id.
[51] Id. at 2-3.
[52] Id. at 3.
[53] Id.
[54] Id.
[55] Esposito v. Town of Bethany, No. CV065002923, 2010 WL 2196910, at * 5 (Conn. Super. Crt. May 3, 2010).
[56] Id. at * 6.
[57] Id. at * 5.
[58] Dornfried v. Berlin Bd. Of Educ., No. CV064011497S, 2008 WL 5220639, at * 1 (Conn. Sup. Crt. Sept. 26, 2008).
[59] Id. at * 5.
[60] Esposito, No. CV065002923, 2010 WL 2196910, at * 8.
[61] Id. at * 1.
[62] Id. at * 8.
[63] Id. at * 4.
[64] Id.
[65] Id. at * 8, * 9.
[66] Id. at * 9.
[67] Id. at * 9, *11.
[68] Doe v. Bristol Bd. Of Educ., No. CV065002257, 2007 WL 1053836, at * 4 (Conn. Super. Crt. Mar. 23, 2007).
[69] Id. at * 4, * 5.
[70] Negron v. Ramirez, No. CV095013686, 2011 WL 2739499, at * 8 (Conn. Super. Crt. June 10, 2011).
[71] Id. at * 8.

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