LEGAL BRIEFING - Parent, school liability for bullying has legal test to meet


Dear John,

I am very upset and don't know what to do.

My 10-year-old son comes home at least three times a week crying. He is being picked on at school and is occasionally being punched by bullies.

I have tried to contact the school to see what can be done. They are not being helpful because they say the bullying takes place when adults don't see it.

They want to put my son in a social skills class as if he is the one doing something wrong.

Can I sue the kids who are torturing my son?


Bullied Brian's Mom

Dear Brian's Mom,

Bullying is one of the problems in our schools and in society in general that is getting a lot of attention. Society's willingness to tolerate it is changing rapidly.

At the same time, school resources are being reduced and more things are being asked of school personnel.

No one should have to endure pain and torment. I think most people can search their memory and find at least one person who made their lives miserable. It hurts greatly and the pain lasts long after the bullying ends.

I know that watching your child go through hardship is nearly unbearable as well.

Children can be held accountable for their actions. Parents can also be found liable for the actions of their children in some situations.

However, children are held to a different standard than adults. While an adult could be arrested for punching another adult, the same may not be true for a child.

Children have to behave as a reasonable child would behave in a similar situation. The saying "boys will be boys" is still applicable, to some degree.

When it comes to litigating for bullying, you would have to show the bullying child was aware of the acceptable way to act and chose to act unreasonably. Showing only that your child was harmed is not enough.

Fortunately, schools have started teaching children about bullying, so a bully will have a greater difficulty claiming there was no awareness of proper behavior.

I am a strong supporter of schools. I believe they have a tremendous burden placed upon them and am amazed at their ability to undertake their duties with enthusiasm.

However, they can be liable for not protecting their students adequately. Clearly discussing with them and developing a plan to change the school environment to make it nonthreatening for your son is important.

I wish you happiness,


John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Any information given is to illustrate basic legal concepts and does not state how any court would decide any matter. Have a question? Ask John at


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