Bullying is a serious issue that one in every five children report experiencing according to data collected and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of those reported bullying cases, 19% take place on school property.

Schools hold an obligation to maintain a safe environment for all students. When harmful words and actions affect a student’s safety or interfere with the educational environment adults must recognize the signs of perpetual physical and emotional abuse and make an effort to stop those behaviors from recurring.

What is Bullying?

The California Education Code defines bullying as “any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct by a pupil or group of pupils, including one or more acts committed by a pupil or group of pupils” that is reasonably likely to cause the fear of physical harm or harm to property, affect a classmate’s mental or physical health, interfere with their academic performance or interfere with their ability to fully participate in school activities and services.

While a common occurrence, bullying should not be overlooked by adults as a part of “growing up.” Studies have shown that there can be serious lasting physical and psychological effects on children who have been bullied, which extends beyond physical violence to include verbal, psychological, and sexual abuse:

  • Physical: hitting, kicking, spitting, punching
  • Verbal: teasing, threatening, name-calling
  • Psychological: exclusion, spreading rumors, intimidating
  • Sexual: touching, assault, exhibitionism

Bullying is not to be confused with minor teasing which can be playful and can help children determine social dynamics. However, when teasing is done repeatedly with the intent to hurt, it can escalate to bullying.

How to Recognize Signs of Bullying

Data from the 2021 Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report shows that only 20% of school bullying incidents are reported. Recognizing signs of bullying is an important first step for adults. Whether a parent or teacher, adults must be aware that not all children will come forward about bullying.

While most children have the ability to verbalize bullying concerns to adults, students with disabilities and especially non-verbal children face additional challenges in advocating for themselves. Repeated and consistent signs of bullying might include:

  • Unexplainable injuries such as bruises or cuts
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades
  • School avoidance
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations

What to do if You Suspect Your Child is Being Bullied

Schools are responsible for developing policies that prohibit bullying and should be held accountable when negligence allows it to continue. Many times, it is the parent who must take action to elicit the school’s response to bullying behaviors. If you suspect your child is being bullied in school, do not hesitate to initiate the steps to find out what happened and prevent future instances:

  • Immediately contact your child’s teacher and ask them to share in detail what happened.
  • Document any injuries. Include dates for future reference.
  • If your child receives special education services, request an IEP meeting to discuss bullying concerns with your child’s IEP team. Discuss what your child has shared and make sure the team is aware of incidents occurring. Ask the team to help develop a safety plan to ensure your child feels secure at school.
  • Find a therapist with expertise in child psychology and bullying. It can be difficult for children to share what is happening at school and a therapist can help your child cope with situations and express their emotions.

First and foremost, developing open communication with teachers and administrators is key to ensuring issues within the school are addressed and resolved quickly. Parents should request meetings at the first sign of concern. Delivering and documenting requests and meetings in writing creates a record of communication between parents and the school.

Once all attempts to communicate with the school and de-escalate the ongoing situation through meetings with administration, safety plans, access to the school counselor, and private therapist appointments, then parents should contact an education rights attorney to explore other available options.

The Importance of Seeking Medical Treatment & Raising Questions

In the majority of bullying cases, the safety of the child being victimized is the primary concern. A child coming home from school with bumps and bruises is not typical, and if there is no reasonable explanation for such injuries provided by the teacher, or if the child is non-verbal, it is important to have any suspicious injuries examined by a doctor immediately.

Failure to quickly recognize and diagnose injuries from repeated bullying can diminish the validity of a case, should you choose to pursue potential damages for medical treatment and expenses.

Likewise, removing your child from an educational setting without raising questions rarely supports fixing a situation that requires documentation and proof of repeated incidents. There have been numerous situations in which parents neglected to ask the school what was happening and instead simply removed their child from the school.

In one particular case, a child was the victim of physical bullying but instead of initiating discussions with the school, the parents removed the child from the school. The child later received an MRI and it was found that he had skull fractures as a result of the trauma he endured that would require extensive medical treatment. His mom wanted to hold the school district accountable but was lacking any proof showing incidents, timelines, or documentation of the bullying.

The importance of contacting your child’s school immediately and following the steps above cannot be expressed enough. In order to hold a school accountable in instances of severe bullying, you must be able to prove the school acted negligently. It is the parent’s responsibility to question the school and demand answers in abusive situations.

When to Contact an Education Rights Attorney

If you suspect your child is being bullied, hiring an experienced education rights attorney can be the most efficient way to help you understand your rights and legal options in pursuing a bullying lawsuit against the school district.

Jennifer Chang is a Los Angeles education rights attorney. She zealously represents students with special needs in all facets of special education law through advocacy, negotiation, and litigation. Families turn to her to organize and obtain documentation, attend IEP meetings, and proceed to file a claim if necessary.