What is bullying under the law?

There is no uniform definition of bullying under the law.  This is partly because there is no federal law that prohibits school bullying. In addition, state anti-bullying laws all define “bullying” somewhat differently.  

To take legal action for school bullying, several factors are typically involved:

Physical abuse that hurts a child’s body or possessions

Verbal abuse, which involves saying or writing mean things, including name-calling, threats and offensive graffiti

Social abuse, which involves hurting a child’s reputation or relationships, such as spreading rumors or excluding someone on purpose

The abuse is repeated over time

The abuse involves a real or perceived power imbalance—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm a child

The abuse causes serious harm to a child—physically, emotionally and/or psychologically

Bullying is not the occasional hurtful taunt, teenage “drama,” or bickering among peers with equal power.

Bullying lawsuits based solely on verbal or social abuse generally fail.  Most successful suits involve abuse with a physical component that has been happening for a least a couple of months and has serious negative effects on the child—such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, excessive absenteeism, deterioration in general physical health, lower grades, and/or withdrawal from the school.

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