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School Bullying: Student Suicide Leads to Suit

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on August 09, 2010 2:07 PM

Another case of a student suicide, apparently caused by bullying, has resulted in a wrongful death suit seeking $10 million in damages. Alise Williams, the mother of a high school freshman in York County, Virginia, is suing school officials and one sheriff's deputy for failing to enforce the anti-bullying policies she believes would have saved her son. The suit claims the defendants were aware of the actions of the student who harassed her son, but did not act. Christian Taylor hanged himself on May 31.

The defendants named in the suit are Grafton High principal Paul Hopkins, assistant principals Craig Reed and Karen Fahringer, counselor Joseph Erfe and school security officer Deputy Ralph Hood, of the York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office, according to a report by the Daily Press. The bully is not specifically named in the suit, but is claimed to have "presented an unreasonable risk to the security and well-being of other students." The suit details a meeting that took place concerning the bullying, with all defendants present. The defendants should have been aware of the risk of emotional damage caused by such harassing behaviors, and should have enforced anti-bullying policies as mandated by the Virginia Department of Education, according to William's suit.

This lawsuit is one based on the wrongful death of the student. Some parents, however, are bringing bullying suits based on the theory of "premises liability." Under this theory, occupiers or owners of land, in these cases schools, are required to keep their premises safe for those who are legally allowed to be there. The law generally requires the owners/occupiers to use a "reasonable amount of care" to provide a safe environment on their premises.

Other legal actions due to school bullying can spring from enforcement of specific bullying statutes. At least eighteen states have bullying statues, including Virginia. These laws aim to address the specific behaviors described as bullying, including verbal, physical, or mental acts used by one student to harass, intimidate, or cause harm to another.

Sadly for Christian Taylor, it appears action to prevent just this kind of behavior came too late. "I started a foundation in Chris' name and it's geared to bringing awareness to what happened to my son," Alise Williams told the Daily Press.

The York County School Division cannot comment on pending litigation, according to spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith.

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