School Employees Sue Cyberbullying Students

School Employees Sue Cyberbullying Students

Cyberbullying occurs when the taunts, threats, and lies that used to occur at the school bus stop or playground occur online. Students usually confine their mischief to other students, but an increasing number of cyberbullying lawsuits have been filed by school employees—including principals and teachers—against students.

School employees have sued students for libel, emotional distress, and defamation of character, and some have named students’ parents as co-defendants for negligent supervision of their children. Thus far these lawsuits have been largely unsuccessful.

Domingo J. Rivera, an Internet law attorney with the Rivera Law Group in Virginia, says if the student is in school when the action occurred, the school would have not only the ability but the obligation to discipline the student.

“However, in many of these cases, when you’re dealing with juveniles, there’s usually no financial incentive to pursue a case,” he says. “When deciding to pursue a defamation case, the victim must also weigh the possibility that the story will get picked up by the media and repeat itself indefinitely. Treating it as a criminal matter might be a way to end the statements,” says Rivera.

Disciplinary Alternative to Lawsuits
Clint Bond, a spokesperson for the Fort Worth, Texas, Independent School District says his district has implemented an “It’s Not OK” anti-bullying campaign that also addresses cyberbullying.

“The district treats students the same whether they bully other students or an employee of the district,” he says.

Helena Wright, a spokeswoman for the Austin Independent School District in Texas, says cyberbullying is addressed in her district’s Student Code of Conduct.

“Teachers are trained in how to handle this. Usually they take the students to the principal’s office, and punishment can escalate from there,” she says.

Suits Hard to Win
Although defamation in the digital environment is relatively new, the law applies equally online and offline, with a couple of exceptions, says Eric Goldman, an associate law professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law, where he is also director of the school's High Tech Law Institute.

“Sometimes courts have noted that alleged defamatory statements were made in an online context—such as a chat room—where no one would take the statements seriously, and therefore, due to that context, the statements aren't actionable. In theory, courts could do the same in analogous offline contexts, but they rarely do so,” he explains.

Defamation cases are hard to win, online or offline. They are also risky for plaintiffs because often the lawsuits call more attention to the statements, and the defendants often counter the suit by trying to show the statements were true, that the plaintiff actually did the thing they were accused of. And in many cases the defendants don't have any money to satisfy a judgment, so it's not worth pursuing such cases, says Goldman.

Kenneth Artz (iamkenartz@hotmail.com) writes from Dallas, Texas.

Internet Info

“Internet Law—Principals Suing Students over Fake Social Networking Profiles,” Internet Business Law Services: http://www.ibls.com/internet_law_news_portal_view.aspx?s=articles&id=68D9EFD5-8CE3-4BE5-B830-B288594A68C1