Bullying's Day in Court

From hall monitors to personal injury lawyers: Parents send a message by forcing bullies from the schoolhouse to the courthouse

By Jonathan Turley

July 15, 2008—

Mathew Mumbauer, 11, never saw it coming. One moment in early March, he was walking down the stairs at Brickett Elementary School in Lynn, Mass. The next moment he was lying at the bottom of the stairs. He was left paralyzed and on a ventilator. Mathew's parents blame bullies who had been hounding Mathew for most of the year.

Mathew is only the latest victim of bullying in our schools, and some parents are turning from the schoolhouse to the courthouse to seek relief. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of students are anxiously counting down the days left in summer and the approach of another bullying season.

With the advent of the Internet, YouTube and MySpace, bullying is becoming more prevalent and more lethal —allowing bullies to move from playgrounds to cyberspace in pursuit of their prey. While the number of bullying lawsuits is unknown, some high-profile cases are focusing attention on the national problem.

Dealing with bullies has long been treated as just part of "growing up," a natural and even maturing element of childhood. Encounters with the ubiquitous bully in movies and literature are treated as a type of rite of passage, particularly for boys. From "the Ogre" in Revenge of the Nerds to Scut Farkas in A Christmas Story, the bullies always lose when you simply stand up to them, right?

Perhaps, or you can end up dead. Across the country, schoolchildren have been killed after standing up to bullies in places as wide-ranging as West Paducah, Ky., Edinboro, Pa., and Jonesboro, Ark.

A Video Hunt

Being a bully remains a popular choice for students, particularly in middle schools, where bullying often peaks. A 2004 survey by KidsHealth found that 40% of children from 9- to 13-years-old admitted to bullying. Another recent study prepared for the American Psychological Association showed that 80% of middle school students admitted to bullying behavior in the prior 30 days. Like Piggy in Lord of the Flies, a child can become a collective target — the object of a natural juvenile inclination to subordinate and isolate individuals. Just ask 15-year-old Billy Wolfe in Fayetteville, Ark.

At some point, high school bullies made him a type of collective sport prey. They even filmed the hunt. One video shows a boy spontaneously announcing that he is going to beat up Billy Wolfe in front of Billy's younger sister, walking up and punching him at a bus stop.

Billy's beatings were triggered years ago after his mom complained to the parents of a bully. The next day, the boy presented Billy with a list of 20 names of boys who signed up to beat him up. Attacks would occur at any time and any place — the bathroom, shop class, the school bus — with one requiring that Billy receive medical treatment.

This is not the first lawsuit involving Fayetteville and bullying. The district was previously sued after a student was savagely beaten for being gay. In a similar case in Kansas City, Kan., a jury awarded Dylan Theno $250,000 against the Tonganoxie School District for years of bullying due to the false rumor that he was gay.

As the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier showed the nation, Internet sites such as MySpace have opened up new opportunities for cyberbullying. Megan's suicide was allegedly triggered by an adult neighbor, Lori Drew, pretending to be a 16-year-old boy who not only dumped her but also initiated a cyberpile-on by other kids. A 2008 study of more than 40,000 adolescents by the Rochester Institute of Technology revealed that 59% of cybervictims in grades seven to nine were bullied by kids whom they knew.

The Underlying Costs

The social costs of bullying are often ignored. A federal study found that 60% of boys who were bullies in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24. Bullying is also routinely tied to suicide attempts, drug abuse, and drop-outs or worse, violence by the victims.

In Littleton, Colo., the killers at Columbine High School in 1999 had complained about being bullied. In Hoover, La., Felicia Reynolds sued the school district after her son, Ricky, stood up to an alleged bully named Sean Joyner after years of complaints to officials at Hoover High School. After being removed from the school due to a separate incident, Sean was allowed to return and fought with Ricky. Sean died from a knife wound, and Ricky was put away for 20 years. Unlike the Hollywood formula of bully movies, when the Karate Kid in real life stands up to bully Johnny Lawrence, he ends up doing one to five years in the county jail.

While many will chafe at the notion of moving from hall monitors to personal injury lawyers, litigation could succeed in forcing schools to take bullying more seriously.

The first step, however, is to dispense with the image of bullies as mere Scut Farkases waiting to be challenged and conquered. Bullies are not adverse object lessons for an educational system; they are the very antithesis of education. They are no more a natural part of learning than is parental abuse a natural part of growing up. That is one lesson Mathew Mumbauer learned all too well.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.