DETROIT — In what experts say could be a landmark decision, a Michigan school district was ordered last week to pay $800,000 to a student who claimed the school did not do enough to protect him from years of bullying, some sexually tinged.
Last week’s jury verdict against Hudson Area Schools puts districts on notice that it’s not enough to stop a student from bullying another. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop systemic bullying, too.
Essentially, the federal court ruling says schools can be held responsible for what students do, if there is a pattern of harassment or if they don’t do enough to provide a safe environment.
“This is going to have implications across the nation,” said Glenn Stutzky, a Michigan State University instructor and an expert on bullying.
The district’s attorney, however, says the verdict puts schools in the tricky position of being held liable for student behavior.
The district plans to appeal.
“You’re never going to completely stop kids from being mean to kids,” said Timothy Mullins of Giamarco, Mullins and Horton of Troy, Mich.
It started with name-calling in middle school and escalated as Dane Patterson entered high school. Some of the harassment was bullying, such as being shoved into lockers.
Other harassment was decidedly sexual in nature. He was called sexual insults, his locker and notebook were defaced with similar names, and worse. He and his parents say they reported the abuse, and yet it continued. Finally, in 10th grade, he was taunted in a locker room by a naked student rubbing against him.
That was the last straw for the Patterson family. In 2005, they sued Hudson Area Schools under Title IX, the Equal Opportunity in Education Act, using the sexually tinged bullying as the basis for a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Last week a jury in U.S. District Court told the school district to pay $800,000 in damages to Patterson, now 19. Anti-bullying proponents say the case will send a message to all school districts that they are responsible for sexual harassment and, by extension, bullying.
For the Pattersons, however, the verdict is much simpler. It’s vindication.
“I can’t even put into words the pain and suffering that I went through for years,” Dane Patterson said. “It’s something that I would not want anyone else to go through.”
While Patterson said he feels vindicated and is trying to move forward, his mother can’t help but look back on their ordeal.
“I don’t know how you get back eight years,” Dena Patterson said. She said her son is so emotionally damaged by his experiences, he can’t even go away to college and live in a dorm with other students.
Hudson schools, like most school districts, has an anti-bullying policy, and it took action against individual students when the bully could be identified. What the district failed to do is stop the pattern of abuse, said Terry Heiss, attorney for Patterson. For example, the school could have done more anti-bullying education, instituted more monitors or other measures to stop the pattern.
But this case makes it clear that having a policy, or even punishing individual bullies is not enough to stop a school from being liable, said Stutzky.