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Even Bullies Have Rights

Bully Rights.jpgBullying can be a difficult part of childhood. Kids who are different from their peers often bear the brunt of their differences, whether being taunted in the schoolyard or through social media. When this happens, many believe the right course is to notify school administration. Parents of both the bullied and bully can often take solace in knowing that the school is handling these matters. Sometimes, this is not true. School administration may investigate the bullying and make a wrong conclusion or infringe upon the rights of one of the children along the way. 

Whether school administration handled the rights of a child was at issue in J.L. v. Board of Education of Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District. Ella, a child in elementary school,  told her father she had been bullied on the school bus for several months. Carl, Ella's father, sent an email to Ella's school principal with  his concern and named two girls, including Anna L., who had bullied Ella. His email said a few other girls had also joined in the bullying. 

The principal contacted an anti-bullying specialist (ABS) to investigate. The interviews with the girls showed that Anna L. had only called her Ella names one time and Ella admitted that Anna L. was not bullying her as much as the other girls. The investigator wrote up her findings, naming all the girls, including Anna L., as "aggressors" who admitted to their behavior and that their behavior constituted "harassment, intimidation, or bullying" (HIB) in violation of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (the "Act"). 

Anna L.'s parents wrote to the superintendent of the school board that they were not aware of an HIB investigation and were not notified. The Board soon after approved the superintendent's report of the HIB investigation and the recommendation of a verbal reprimand and changed seating arrangement on the bus. The Board notified Ella's parents, who responded that they had only ever intended that the children learn rather than be punished and that it was not beneficial for children to be permanently labeled as "bullies."

Anna L.'s parents appealed the decision to the Commissioner of the Board, alleging that the Board had violated the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act themselves, infringing on Anna L.'s right to due process, and that Anna L.'s behavior did not constitute HIB. The Commissioner found that the Board did not follow proper procedure under the Act and ordered it to be remanded. Anna L.'s parents argued this was the incorrect remedy, but the Appellate Court agreed with the Commissioner. 

Bullying cases do not differ from other cases procedurally - the rights of those being accused must be upheld and proper process under the law must be followed.  Here, Anna L.'s rights were violated under the Act when her parents were not notified of the HIB investigation until after the Board had voted to impose penalties. They did not get a copy of the investigation until 2 months afterwards. Appropriate remedies for bullying cases involving children are not always harsh. Ella's parents even highlighted that the children were still young and needed to learn, rather than be punished. 

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