I have represented quite a few students who have been victims of bullying. The largest target group for bullying is students with disabilities. While it is true that schools are rarely effective in addressing the bullying, making parents often desire to move their children to protect them, that ineffectiveness applies across the board to traditional public, charter and private schools. In Florida, public school students at least have a bullying law requiring that school districts create and follow an anti-bullying policy or risk losing funding. There is no legal protection for private school students (other than using tort law if there is substantial injury, and few personal injury attorneys are willing to take these cases because of statutory limits on liability). Charter school compliance is rarely enforced by districts, who find it easier to invite the student back to public schools than to get the charter schools to do something.
Also, simply moving students to new schools does not always stop the bullying. Students are often targeted for their differences, and I see a disproportionate number of students with weak social skills (due to Asperger’s, ADHD, or mental health conditions) get bullied over and over in different settings until someone looks at them and gets them the supports they need to interact more effectively with their peers. My son was one of those kids. Public schools have the resources and knowledge to evaluate and provide these supports; the privately-run schools usually do not.
What we need is to strengthen the existing law and to expand coverage to all schools. The current law does not give families a direct right to pursue action if the bullying investigation and follow-up are ineffective, so long as the district has a policy and follows the steps in the policy. Without this leverage, schools will not be fully invested in completely eliminating the problem. Additionally, Palm Beach County is working on creating academic standards for social competencies so that all kids (bullies and victims) learn better ways of interacting. We need to advocate to make this statewide.
I am happy to speak about my family’s experience with bullying and my clients’ struggles with bullying in charter and private schools. I can also ask some of the families to speak out. I know several who would love to help change the system.
Kimberley Spire-Oh is an attorney in Palm Beach and a member of the League of Women Voters.