Know the Law: Bullying Behavior in Public Schools

Photo of Linda Johnson
Linda S. Johnson
Director, Litigation Department and Vice Chair of Education Law Group
Published: Union Leader
September 20, 2010

Q:  I am an administrator at a public high school, and witnessed what may or may not be considered bullying behavior.  As an employee of the school, what is my responsibility to report the situation under New Hampshire law, and my liability if I don’t?  What if I am not sure?

A:  As an administrator of the school, you should immediately report the situation to your principal or the person who is identified in your school or district policy to whom reports of bullying should be made.  All school employees, volunteers, parents, guardians, students and contract employees are entitled to immunity from civil liability for good faith reporting of bullying.   Failure to report can expose both the school and you, as an administrator, to possible liability for failure to provide a safe school environment and to appropriately respond to bullying about which you became aware.

If you are not sure whether to report, or whether the behavior amounts to bullying, you can look to the newly revised definition of bullying in New Hampshire’s anti-bullying statute known as the “Pupil Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000.”  It states that bullying is defined as a single significant incident or a pattern of incidents involving written, verbal, or electronic communication, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at another pupil which either (1) physically harms a pupil or damages the pupil’s property, (2) causes emotional distress to a pupil, (3) interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities, (4) creates a hostile educational environment, or (5) substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school.   If you are still in doubt but reasonably believe that what you witnessed is bullying, it would be wise to report and allow the school’s bullying response procedures to take place.  This would likely include an investigation, parental notification and, if the bullying is substantiated, possible disciplinary consequences, notice to the superintendent and other appropriate responsive action.

Studies show that bullying is a pervasive issue in schools with serious consequences to students and to the school community.  All school employees have a role in preventing and appropriately responding to bullying and cyberbullying in our schools.