Ned Charles IV has a form of cerebral palsy. The 15-year-old is in special-education classes. So was the boy who hit him, grabbed his neck and pushed him to the ground while waiting for a school bus two years ago at Tuskawilla Middle School.
Ned’s parents are now suing the Seminole County School Board, alleging that the boy who hurt their son had bullied him for days and that the district should have stopped it.
Their suit is part of a growing trend in Central Florida and nationally: Parents are hiring lawyers and suing school districts, accusing them of letting schoolyard bullies frighten, intimidate and sometimes beat up their children.
The uptrend started around 2007, said Sonja Trainor, senior staff attorney at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. And some people and agencies have begun treating bullying as a public-health threat.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has launched a nationwide campaign, dubbed “Stop Bullying Now!” with tips for parents and kids. And there is now an online video channel — “It Gets Better” — founded last year in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay or suspected of being gay.
Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher represented Orange County Public Schools for 30 years. He’s now in private practice and says he gets about six calls a day from Central Florida families, complaining that they have a child who’s being bullied and need legal help.
He is stunned by the demand.
Kruppenbacher said he has sent about 100 letters to school districts in Central Florida in the past two months, “putting them on formal notice that there’s a situation that is causing damage to the child. We’re not looking to file suit, quite candidly, but if they don’t remedy the situation, it’s going to move to that, and it could move to significant damages.”
Seminole’s School Board is defending itself against two bullying suits in state circuit court, and another family has filed notice that it intends to sue, said School Board attorney Ned Julian.
He would not discuss the cases, except to say the board is aggressively defending itself against the two that are pending.
Ned’s parents, Ned Charles III and Denise Sharpnack of Oviedo, filed suit in June.
They are angry, they say, because the day their son was hurt, no one from the school told them about it, gave him medical care or treated it like a crime. And for months afterward, the school did not move the other boy to a different classroom, Sharpnack said.
“It made me so angry that the school was doing absolutely nothing,” she said.
The school gave a five-day suspension to the boy who hit Ned, according to court pleadings.
In the other Seminole suit, the family of a former Teague Middle School student contends that school children there called their son offensive names, pushed him down stairs and kicked him during an ongoing campaign of abuse that lasted through much of his sixth-grade year.
His family is due damages, according to its attorney, Justin Clark of Longwood, because the boy sustained physical injuries and severe psychological trauma.
The child suffered “a constant verbal bashing about his sexuality,” Clark said. The boy, now 14, now attends another school.
The district has asked a judge to throw out the suit, saying the boy may have been bullied for months and even physically injured, but no one notified school officials until a few days before his family yanked him from school in 2008.
Clark also represents a mother and father who earlier this month notified the Polk County Public School District that they intend to sue, alleging that their third-grade son was repeatedly bullied at Palmetto Elementary in Poinciana by a boy who one day grabbed him during physical-education class and threw him to the concrete, causing a concussion.
Polk County School Board Attorney Wes Bridges would not comment.
Orange County’s School Board has never been sued in a bullying case, spokeswoman Kathy Marsh said.
Will families who sue, alleging bullying, win in court? The claim is very difficult to prove, Trainor said.
In the Seminole County cases, families must show that school employees knew about the bullying, knew it was ongoing and did not do enough to stop it.
The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines to schools on how to handle bullying, and the Florida Legislature in 2008 ordered local school boards to enact anti-bullying policies.
Seminole has one.
Those things should work to minimize bullying and the district’s vulnerability to bullying lawsuits, Trainor said.
“School districts want to fight bullying just as much as parents do,” she said.
Rene Stutzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-650-6394.