Lawmakers urged to create right to sue over how schools deal with bullying

Kevin Landrigan, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·3 min read

Feb. 23—CONCORD — Trial lawyers and parents urged lawmakers Tuesday to create a right for families to sue public school officials that permit bullying — in person or online — to go unpunished in New Hampshire.

But education leaders warned the proposed remedy was so extreme it could spark a "slew" of frivolous lawsuits and allow the reported bully to sue the school district.

A 2015 Supreme Court decision denying a Manchester family's right to sue over their 12-year-old daughter's assault in a school cafeteria sparked the legislation (HB 140).

The bill would give families the right to sue when school districts are guilty of "gross negligence" or "willful misconduct" in addressing a bullying complaint.

In its ruling, the state's high court said a 2010 law on dealing with bullying complaints gave citizens no such right to challenge school district decisions.

Concord lawyer Megan Douglass was one of the lawyers for the family of the seventh-grader who, in 2011, had her teeth knocked out by two boys who, the family said, teased her in the school cafeteria.

The mother maintained the assault could have been prevented had the family known their daughter was punched in the face on a school bus earlier the same week.

Thomas Brennan, the Manchester school superintendent at the time, said school officials did not consider the first incident on the bus to be bullying.

"I am gobsmacked at the way this provision has been presented over and over again as some tremendous burden on public school officials, when all it really does is hold our educators accountable for failing to maintain a relatively low standard of care," Douglass told the House Education Committee.

Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, said school officials spend hundreds of hours each year investigating bullying incidents and in nearly each instance at least one party is unhappy with the outcome.

"It is terrible these children are still bullied, but school boards can't eradicate bullying," Christina said. "It seems the accountability of the bullying should be the parent. If there is a bully in school, the district has limited responses to what it can do."

Gerald Zelin, a lawyer representing the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said the bill gives court access to anyone "aggrieved" by a school decision on bullying.

"This is a recipe for frivolous litigation," Zelin said. "The lawsuits will tie up district resources and staff time."

A year ago, the state House rejected an identical bill (HB 1335) when Democrats controlled the chamber. The vote to kill it was 181-142.

Now, Republicans are the majority party in the House.

All but two Republicans backed that bill in 2020.

The sponsor, Rep. Glenn Cordelli, R-Tuftonboro, is now vice chairman of the House Education Committee. Co-sponsors include the chairs of the House and Senate education panels, as well as Rep. Barbara Shaw, D-Manchester.

Shannon Bouchard said her daughter, a high school freshman, has verbal apraxia, a motor planning speech disorder that makes it difficult to form intelligible responses.

"My daughter was bullied over her entire school career," Bouchard said. "These kids are suffering in silence because everywhere they turn, there is no help for them."

Bouchard tried to get her daughter moved to two neighboring school districts, but officials have refused to accept her, citing the COVID-19 risk.

"By changing schools, she could have got an inclusive education instead of a push-out education," Bouchard said.

The bill seeks the same right as enshrined in a 2019 law that permits families to sue school districts for failing to deal with discrimination against students. As yet, no lawsuit has been filed that tests how this discrimination claim could work in the state's court systems.

Carl Ladd, executive director of the school administrators' lobby, said there's no definition in civil law of what amounts to "gross negligence."

"We would be opening up a whole new slew of lawsuits at public taxpayer expense to define gross, willful negligence," Ladd warned.

klandrigan@unionleader.com