A Washington Civil Lawyer’s Perspective on Bullying or Cyber-Bullying in Schools
The vast majority of parents experienced or witnessed bullying while growing up but it was limited to name calling and violence. The current generations of children are experiencing bullying in an entirely different manner in a way that the older generation may not fully understand or recognize and Washington law, prosecuting lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, police officer and civil lawyers are just starting to catch on. Having prosecuted and defended a wide variety of protection orders, we are well situated to understand the dynamics, court concerns and issues raised in these kinds of cases.
- If the bullying involves minors and sexual misconduct, review the section on Sexual Assault Protection Orders. Sexual misconduct is treated differently than bullying.
With the prevalence of social media, such as email, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, amongst others, cyberbullying has become a serious problem. What was once said face to face, by telephone, or through passed notes, now can be easily typed and sent instantaneously to dozens, if not hundreds of people. This changes how effective and real cyber-bullying can be.
Everyone moderately familiar with email, social media, and the comment sections of websites knows many people (not just teenagers) are willing to say or write terrible things they would never actually say to someone’s face. Ironically, children can be the worst offenders.
One especially harmful aspect of this form of bullying is the fact that it can feel like there is no escaping it. In the past, kids could leave the actual bullying behind once they left the school grounds. Unfortunately, technology allowing individuals to always be in reach instantaneously has a serious drawback here. There is no escape of the abuse even if leaving school grounds. The abuse will relentlessly follow the target wherever they go as the Internet does not sleep.
As parents, it is extremely important to communicate with your children, recognize when cyberbullying is occurring and take steps to stop it.
Within the context of school, the state has defined harassment, intimidation, or bullying as any intentional electronic, written, verbal, or physical act which physically harms a student or damages a student’s property; or has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education; or is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment; or has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.
The State requires each school district to set up procedures to deal with bullying when they occur. Obviously, the first step must be to contact the school to notify it that your child is being victimized. Written notice is most effective as what was told to the school cannot be disputed (as regularly happens if you give verbal notice). Writing also forces you to articulate your concerns in a more articulate manner. The hope is the school can handle the matter and end the child’s bullying. Unfortunately, success is not necessarily guaranteed.
Steps to Seek an Anti-Harassment Order
If the bullying persists, parents may or must, depending on the facts, consider obtaining an anti-harassment order from a court to protect their child. In our opinion, we highly recommend spending the money to hire a competent law firm or lawyer for this process, as in our opinion, courts can be reluctant to act (depending on the behavior) and these kinds of cases can be highly contested. The Washington legislature has given an enormous amount of power to Washington Courts to remedy this problem but has put 3 qualifications in place that you and your civil lawyer must pay attention too. When a parent comes in asking for a protection order for a child under eighteen against another child under eighteen:
- First, all the legal requirements of an actual anti-harassment protection order must be met In short, at minimum, the court must find a course of conduct AND unlawful harassment.
- Second, the court can consider filed protection orders, “only in cases where the person to be restrained has been adjudicated of an offense against the child protected by the order, or is under investigation or has been investigated for such an offense.” Washington Revised Code 10.14.040(7) Practically, this means parents of bullied children can seek a protection order only if the bully has been prosecuted, is pending an investigation of abuse or has been investigated. The rule is not clear on who has to investigate but a reasonable interpretation, in our opinion, is at minimum the school or police must believe the accusations rise to the level that requires investigation for the matter to be considered important enough to consider getting the court’s involvement.The key behind this barrier | threshold for filing is driven by the Washington State legislature who found, “that unlawful harassment directed at a child by a person under the age of eighteen is not acceptable and can have serious consequences. The legislature further finds that some interactions between minors, such as “schoolyard scuffles,” though not to be condoned, may not rise to the level of unlawful harassment. It is the intent of the legislature that a protection order sought by the parent or guardian of a child as provided for in this chapter be available only when the alleged behavior of the person under the age of eighteen to be restrained rises to the level set forth in chapter 10.14 RCW.” In our opinion, the requiring an active investigation at minimum, the legislature has directed the court to deter those parents who would elevate schoolyard scuffles into situations that require the intervention of Washington’s legal system.
- Third, the court must consider a number of factors in granting an anti-harassment order that are unique to cases involving an anti-harassment orders for minors. In these minor vs. minor settings, the Washington Revised Code of Washington requires the judge who is hearing the case to consider, “among the other facts of the case, the severity of the alleged offense, any continuing physical danger or emotional distress to the alleged victim, and the expense, difficulty, and educational disruption that would be caused by a transfer of the alleged offender to another school. The court may order that the person restrained in the order not attend the public or approved private elementary, middle, or high school attended by the person under the age of eighteen years protected by the order. In the event that the court orders a transfer of the restrained person to another school, the parents or legal guardians of the person restrained in the order are responsible for transportation and other costs associated with the change of school by the person restrained in the order. The court shall send notice of the restriction on attending the same school as the person protected by the order to the public or approved private school the person restrained by the order will attend and to the school the person protected by the order attends.”
The point is when the court is asked to take action between minor children, the judge is to weigh the consequences of having to change schools because practically, the conduct or distance and contact provisions of an anti-harassment | bullying order may require it.
It is important to consult with an experienced firm who can help you navigate these difficult waters. The Rhodes Legal Group has collectively decades of experience representing the accused and victims in criminal and civil cases. Email or call 206-708-7852 to set an appointment.