The suicide of the 10th-grader sent shock waves through the middle school, but after a few months, almost all students and staff had moved on. The principal had heard through the grapevine that the parents blamed the school, but he had no idea that the school was going to be sued. The lawsuit specifically named the principal, coach and a teacher the parents believed had failed to stop the bullying of their child at school. The parents claimed that they had told school officials of their concerns about their child being victimized and that nothing had been done.
"Bullicide" has unfortunately become a new term in the bullying and suicide prevention literature. it means that a victim of repeated bullying became depressed and then died by suicide. While school administrators across the nation may not be entirely familiar with the term, I strongly suggest based on my involvement in several legal cases that you take proactive steps to increase your knowledge and to implement bullying and suicide prevention programs.
School personnel have generally been found by the courts to have sovereign immunity and not to be liable unless they have acted with malice or showed deliberate indifference to the bullying. I have helped to successfully defend school personnel in several legal cases, including Jasperson v. Anoka Hennepin, resolved in favor of the school system in the state of Minnesota court of Appeals. These cases call into question the training provided to faculty and staff on bullying and suicide prevention, the policies developed and implemented, the surveillance conducted, the consequences provided for the bully and the support provided for the victim.
There is no question that many schools throughout the nation are increasingly making bullying prevention a priority. This school year, national leaders, even President Obama, have called for bullying to stop, and the national media has linked the cause of the suicide to bullying and ignored other common contributing factors such as a history of mental health issues, conduct problems, substance abuse, impulsive behavior and family difficulties. National figures indicate that 25 percent of students are bullied. The following are lists of suggestions that educators can implement to improve their prevention efforts and to protect them should they ever be named in a lawsuit:
- Implement a schoolwide program in which all staff commit to the common goal of reducing bullying.
- Survey students to determine the extent of the problem and where it most occurs, and solicit student input to reduce it.
- Recognize that gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are often the targets of bullying, and increase support for those students. Excellent resources are available from the Gay Lesbian straight education Network (www.glsen.org).
- Implement programs designed to reach bystanders and gain a commitment from them to take action to stop bullying instead of allowing bullying to take place.
- Hold parent meetings and provide training especially on reducing cyberbullying.
- Teach staff how to recognize bullying and to take immediate action to stop bullying when it occurs. ensure that a staff member who encounters a bullying situation does not try to make the bully and victim work it out, but instead separates them and provides consequences for the bully and support for the victim.
- Teach staff that they need to let bullies know that they will be watching and that consequences will increase in severity if the bullying continues.
- Ensure that victims know the importance of letting staff know if bullying continues.
- Increase staff supervision in areas where bullying occurs the most.
- Review various evidence-based bullying prevention programs listed at www.bullyinginfo.org.
- Provide annual training sessions for all staff on identifying the warning signs and how to get help and increase support for suicidal students.
- Ensure that your school has a comprehensive suicide prevention policy.
- Provide presentations for parents that include suicide prevention information.
- Create a prevention task force that involves school staff and community resources and agencies.
- Investigate and implement depression screening programs.
- Designate a suicide prevention expert at your school, and get that person credentialed in school suicide prevention from the American Association of suicidology (www.suicidology.org).
Scott Poland is an associate professor at Nova Southeastern University and past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Michael Pusateri, a doctoral student at NSU, contributed to this article.