It's time for West Virginia schools to live up to their legal obligations and take action to stop bullying. This was the message sent by federal education officials to the state's K-12 schools and colleges in a recent letter. A federal government survey of West Virginia high school students found that 23 percent had been the victim of bullying in the last 12 months - one of the highest percentages of high schoolers in the country. As West Virginia Education Law Attorneys, we are concerned for the children in our schools.
Federal anti-discrimination laws, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibit harassment based on race, religion, ethnicity, sex, color, national origin and disability. While federal law does not directly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, in some cases, the prohibition on discrimination based on sex will apply to the harassment of gay, lesbian and transgendered students. Like other public schools across the country, West Virginia schools are required to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws and prohibit these types of discrimination.
A 2009 sample survey found that nationally, nearly twenty percent of ninth through twelfth grade students reported being bullied on school property within the past year. While boys are more likely to be the victims of physical and verbal assaults, girls are more likely to be harassed psychologically and relationally. Younger students also are more likely to be bullied; one survey found that nearly 43 percent of sixth graders had reported being bullied by other students.
The increased attention on preventing bullying comes in the wake of multiple high profile cases in which victims of bullying committed suicide. These cases include the death of 18-year-old Rutgers student Tyler Clementi after his roommate released a video of him in an intimate situation with another male on the Internet and 15-year-old South Hadley, Massachusetts student Phoebe Prince, who took her own life after repeated bullying by classmates.
West Virginia's Anti-Bullying Laws
West Virginia adopted an anti-bullying law in 2001. The law prohibits harassment, intimidation and bullying, which is defined as "any intentional gesture, or any intentional written, verbal or physical act or threat" that a reasonable person should know will harm the student, damage his or her property or place him or her in reasonable fear of harm. The law also prohibits behavior that is "sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive in that it creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment" for the student (WVC §18-2C-2).
The law also requires each county school board to develop anti-bullying policies and to adopt procedures for students to report bullying and for the school to investigate the claims. These policies must be printed in student handbooks. The school boards also are encouraged to develop harassment educational programs for each grade level and for the teaching staff to help them recognize the behavior and understand the school's anti-bullying policy.
The anti-bullying prohibition applies to acts occurring not just on school property, but also at school-sponsored events. State law also requires teachers and other school staff who witness harassment or violence to report the acts to the school's investigator.
West Virginia's law is unique from the majority of other states' anti-bullying laws in that it focuses not just on developing procedures to investigate claims of harassment, but that it also focuses on the importance of appropriately punishing those who commit the bullying. While the school boards are given latitude to develop appropriate disciplinary action, some of the suggested punishments include warnings, suspensions, exclusion from school events and expulsion.
Understanding that students who report bullying behavior to school officials may be subjected to even worse harassment, West Virginia's anti-bullying law also directs the state's school boards to develop procedures for protecting victims of bullying.
Your Legal Options for School Administrative Law and Harassment
A national safety issue exists for all families: the protection of children at school. It is a terrifying thing for a child to get on a bus that holds other students that promise the child physical harm, and then act on it. Way too often the perpetrators of school violence and harassment are not appropriately disciplined by the school administration, and the offensive conduct is permitted to continue.
Conversely, in other instances, school and college administrations may over-penalize good students for slight infractions of school policy while turning the blind eye to other more harmful student conduct. Things get even worse for the student when the teacher is the source of the harassment or abuse.
Parents and students alike are at their wits ends on how to properly handle these situations with school authorities. The school administration and college administration have their own lawyers to counsel them -- and without a solid knowledge of the law and administrative rules, victims of school disturbances can exert but little pressure on the school or college for positive change.
Our law firm provides legal representation for clients who have various disputes with schools and colleges, particularly in the areas of student safety and unfair administrative actions against students.
From elementary school to the college years, we have successfully represented clients in matters relating to school disputes including school violence and harassment and administrative actions against students.
Basic Consultation Package: Our law firm realizes that many of the families that are injured by school disturbances cannot afford the legal fees of a full-time lawyer. Therefore, we offer a Basic Consultation Package which provides two hours of in-office or telephone conferences with one of our lawyers, and two hours of legal research on pertinent state law and regulations that relate to your case.
This basic package allows the client to do all of the background work and attend all the meetings with the school administration, but with the benefit of having some legal counsel to provide guidance on the best way to resolve their dispute with the school administration.
The up-front cost of the Basic Consultation Package is $1,000.
Extended Consultation Package: Some families or individuals may not feel up to the challenge of handling their own dispute with the school administration, and can afford to hire a lawyer to represent them for much or all of the school administration proceedings.
Accordingly, we offer an Extended Consultation Package which provides the client with more legal options to resolve their dispute with the school administration. In order to select the Extended Consultation Package, the client must provide a retainer fee of $2,500, which sum is deposited into the law firm trust account.
The client is then billed for the hours of legal work performed at an agreed amount per hour, plus costs and expenses, which amount is deducted from the retainer fee.
When the retainer fee is exhausted, the client may deposit further sums to continue the representation, or may chose to discontinue the legal representation; the client is not obligated to continue the legal representation beyond the initial retainer fee.
The up-front cost of the Extended Consultation Package is $2,500.
Please contact my office at 304-594-1800 to discuss which Consultation Package will work for you.