February 27, 1999
By Raad Cawthon - Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
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
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
"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
According to Shakeshaft, courts in different parts of the country
have ruled differently when asked to hold schools responsible for student-to-student
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,
"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
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. . . .
people won't step in to stop it, it will get bigger. Bullying doesn't stop
on its own."