Girls Take School to Court, Saying It Ignored Bullying

July 31, 2006 — -- Rachel Weddle has a bald spot from when a bully pulled her hair and punched her in the face at school.

Bethany Buis received letters with death threats and eventually transferred schools.

Nikki Rayborn spent most of her time at school trying to avoid bullies.

Charissa Gosser was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder, which involves feelings of depression or anxiety.

Lacy Griffith skipped her high school graduation fearing harassment.

All five girls have filed a joint lawsuit against their former high school in Kentucky, alleging that the Casey County High School administration ignored their reports of constant bullying.

They are suing for unspecified damages.

Physical and Emotional Bullying

The suit says that the students, who range in age from 15 to 18, continued to receive physical and emotional bullying from other students after repeatedly notifying teachers, the principal and the superintendent.

The suit also contends that school officials repeatedly told the girls and their parents that nothing could be done by the school to stop bullying.

Brenda Popplewell, one of three lawyers representing the teens, said the school was negligent in its supervision of the students and the bullies.

She has represented several children in abuse cases, but she said that never had a situation been so widespread where adults had dismissed the claims.

"It's more than one child, one horrible situation," she said. "Every child should be able to go to school and feel safe."

According to the lawsuit, the school principal told the students and their parents that there was nothing he could do about the bullying and said one of the girls should just "ride it out."

The lawsuit also says that upon witnessing a physically aggressive act against one of the girls, a teacher responded, "Whew, she's mad at you."

The vice principal reportedly told a parent that her daughter would have to "toughen up."

"He had no way to guarantee our safety," said Lacy, who says she was told by the vice principal that she "got more trouble than most girls" because she was pretty. "If that doesn't make you feel helpless, nothing will."

Linda Hatter, the superintendent of Casey County schools, is named in the lawsuit, which says she often told parents she did not know what to do about the bullying.

Hatter told that she was unable to comment specifically on the lawsuit because she hadn't had time to read through the documents, which had been recently served to her.

She said that in her tenure as superintendent she had received only two complaints related to bullying and that the school had policies and procedures in effect that addressed bullying.

"As far as the two [complaints], one of them I assumed was more of a concern over embarrassment, more than anything," she said.

Looking the Other Way?

"All of us were scared to tell people," said Charissa, who says she was bullied for several years. Her counselor recommended that she be placed in a home-school program where she wouldn't have to fear being assaulted at school.

Students who are bullied will often hide the abuse from adults because they fear speaking up will incite more harassment.

In many situations, adults overlook chronic bullying, said Dr. Susan Limber, associate director of the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University.

"Sometimes it's difficult for us as adults to see it. It can be subtle," she said.

Well-meaning adults, Limber said, may think the bullying is a onetime occurrence and not take bullying claims as seriously.

"For some kids, bullying can leave some lasting scars," she said. "Kids who are bullied can have higher rates of depression and are at least more likely to talk about and take their own life."

In 1998, 13-year-old Jared High committed suicide after his mother said he became depressed from being assaulted and bullied in school several months earlier.

Brenda High, Jared's mother, took her son's Washington state school district to court for neglecting to discipline a known bully and eventually settled for $140,000 in damages.

"We found that teachers and administrators had absolutely no clue how to handle bullying," she said. "There was a mass of chaos and confusion when it came to bullying and how to handle it."

She successfully campaigned for the passage of the state's anti-bullying law.

Bully Police USA

High has since established Bully Police USA, an organization that advocates for states to pass legislation enforcing laws against bullying.

The Web site grades the 27 states that have anti-bullying policies and provides an example of a school anti-bullying policy.

In Kentucky, there is no statewide law that specifically targets bullying, but many school districts have policies that deal with harassment and school safety.

Still, the five girls say they hope their lawsuit helps other students who fear speaking up about bullying.

"We're not doing this for ourselves," said Charissa, who has a younger sister. "I don't want them to go through what we did."