CHICAGO -- A mother has sued a Chicago-area school district, alleging that, by not preventing a bully from beating her son, the school showed "reckless disregard" for his safety.
The suit appears to be the latest in a growing number filed by parents to protect their children while they are at school.
"The reason we are getting lawsuits is because the courts have ruled that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination," said Charol Shakeshaft, an education professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and an expert on bullying and sexual harassment in schools. "That has opened the door to people who have been harassed by peers to say: 'This is a form of discrimination. It is against the law.' "
A federal appeals court last year upheld a ruling that a Georgia school district was liable in the case of a 15-year-old girl who was sexually harassed by another student. The basis of the suit was a 1972 federal law banning discrimination based on gender by schools accepting federal funds. That case has been appealed and is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Illinois case was filed earlier this month by Gail Zak on behalf of her son, Derek, now 13. It alleges that last year, when he was in the sixth grade, he was beaten by another student and suffered a concussion.
The suit alleges that the bully had exhibited a pattern of violent behavior and that school officials were warned of that behavior by a father whose son had been beaten by the bully on the previous day.
"We are not talking about some little scuffles in the hallway and stuff like that," the Zaks' attorney, Jack Davenport, said. "We are talking about a knockdown beating in the hallway."
Through a spokesman, James Paziotopoulos, the superintendent of the Oak Lawn/Hometown School District, declined comment, saying that "no certified papers" had yet been filed in the suit.
Davenport said that because the alleged beating took place at school, when both students were beyond the control of parents, the family could not sue the bully or his parents.
"The law in the State of Illinois is that, in situations such as this, you are not going to be successful in suing parents," he said. "Obviously, they are not in the class supervising. The schools stand in loco parentis, in the shoes of the parents."
Even though the suit asks $100,000 in damages, Davenport said that the Zaks' real motivation was "that something be done, that this doesn't happen to anybody else."
Shakeshaft said that the Illinois case could be a significant one.
"The general issue of whether a school district is responsible for peer violence is, in some ways, untried territory," she said. "We are waiting for courts to rule on how much legal liability school districts have."
According to Shakeshaft, courts in different parts of the country have ruled differently when asked to hold schools responsible for student-to-student violence.
Kevin Welner, an attorney at the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the "primary job" of school districts was to find ways of keeping students, even those prone to violence, in school.
"When the school responds to the issue of violence on the part of the student, the school district has to balance that issue with their responsibility to educate the student," he said. "It is not an easy decision to make."
A recent study by the National Education Goals Panel indicates that Nevada was the only state of 24 studied over a five-year period ending in 1997 to report a decrease in the number of fights by high school students on school property. The 23 other states saw no change.
"Most schools don't have a problem with violence; they have a problem with [class] disruption," Celia Lose, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, said.
But Lose also said that, while studies indicated that student-on-student violence remained largely static, student-on-teacher violence and threats of such violence were rising. She added: "Antisocial behavior which is left unchecked can escalate."
Shakeshaft said that while there were few hard numbers to back it up, her sense was that bullying in schools was increasing.
"If it is, we can't really say why," she said. "The best we have is that kids are more likely to be in an unsupervised situation. . . . If people won't step in to stop it, it will get bigger. Bullying doesn't stop on its own."
For research, please visit, "Bullying Prevention - Links that Support" at http://www.jaredstory.com/vip_links_bullying.html
HEAR JARED'S VOICE - PLAY - From an interview with Pasco School District investagators concerning the assault. This is a recording of a recording and it isn't real clear, but worth the download effort. Jared had a real mellow voice. Note: If you have a slow load wav, wait for it to load entirely and then play again from the start. 5 minutes long.
A Congressman speaks out about bullying, and in support of an anti bullying law in Arizona "The school ground bully has been around for too long. His entire success at bullying is predicated upon arrogant disregard to simple decency, and a willingness to brutalize an innocent victim simply because the bully is bigger and stronger and others are afraid to intervene. It is insidious and calls for society and government to intervene decisively. This bullying bill is a start. As you deliberate this bill please reflect on the fact that Government's primary purpose for existence is for the protection of its innocent citizens. ...Then remember your bully as a child."
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