Can NJ school districts be held responsible for bullying-related suicides?
ROCKAWAY TOWNSHIP — The parents of a 12-year-old New Jersey girl who took her own life in June are suing the school she attended, saying she had been cyber-bullied for months and school officials did nothing to stop it.
Mallory Grossman’s parents and their attorney announced on Thursday they are suing the township school district because school teachers, administrators and the principal did not take the action they’re required to, under state law, to stop other students from constantly taunting, insulting and harassing their daughter in text messages and on Snapchat and Instagram.
According to former Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi, New Jersey now has some of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country, and schools have certain responsibilities to protect children.
He explained under state law, schools are “acting on behalf of the parents certainly when they’re at the school, and the issue becomes when they’re out of school they also have to maintain some level of control in regards to bullying activities that are occurring with the students.”
“They have an affirmative obligation under the law to protect children, and they have an affirmative obligation on the anti-bullying law to have some very specific responses in terms of how they collect data, how they investigate it.”
Bianchi said the central issue here is if school officials were negligent.
“That is, if they failed to do what a reasonable person would under the law, in order to try to abate the scenario, and there are very specific protocols as to what they’re supposed to do.”
He pointed out we do not know all of the facts in this case but if the girl’s parents did report what was going on to school officials the way they insist they did, and nothing was done about it in a timely fashion, the civil suit being filed would seem to have merit.
Bianchi said if the facts indicate the school did not take the proper steps to protect Mallory, and the child’s death was a direct result of that negligence, “then there is a very serious possibility of a civil judgment in the case, and then the next thing that happens is that the jury would be required to determine what is the value of her life.”
He said in this instance, “you can imagine a jury offering a very sizable verdict or judgment.”
Bianchi added lawsuits could also be filed against the parents of the children who allegedly participated in the cyber bullying .
“Of course it all depends on the facts. I would imagine, at least if it were me, that I would be suing everybody who I believed may have been involved in this, parents are legally responsible for the actions of anybody who’s under the age of 18.”
He said the case will center on what the parents knew, when they knew it and whether they did they do anything about it.
“Really until you get all of that data or information, it’s very difficult to determine whether or not the parents would be held responsible,” he said.
Bianchi stressed that cyber-bullying is not just a law enforcement issue and it’s not just an education issue.
“It’s a whole community issue and we have to work together to make sure tragedies like this don’t occur, otherwise kids are being victimized repeatedly and unfortunately this can be the consequence when nobody jumps in to stop it.”
He also pointed out sometimes this kind of case isn’t about money.
“It’s about making a point and making it painful so that schools later determine that they’re going to promptly respond and aggressively attack any issues of kids who are being bullied.”
He noted most of these types of cases don’t go to a jury, and eventually both sides are willing to settle on a certain amount of money to end the matter and keep it private.
Calls to the Rockaway Township school district seeking comment on the case were not answered.
You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com