DES MOINES — In the days following her son’s suicide, Jeannie Chambers told a television reporter from Sioux City’s KITV that she wasn’t sure if she wanted charges filed against the classmates who bullied her boy.
Chambers’ son, Kenneth Weishuhn, was 14-years-old when he killed himself April 15. His death inspired rallies and candlelight vigils across the state and reignited a debate about bullying, responsibility and liability.
Chambers’ reason behind her indecisiveness seemed altruistic. She told the interviewer she didn’t want another mother to lose a child.
But bullying victims and their families have increasingly turned to the legal system for recourse. They’re going beyond pushing for criminal charges and civil penalties against bullies: they’re taking on school systems — and winning.
“In general, more of these types of lawsuits are being filed, and the courts are coming out with stronger opinions,” said Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center who specializes in civil rights cases.
“There’s also an overall societal consciousness about bullying and the lawsuits in general, so that’s another reason why it could seem they are happening more frequently,” Wolfe said.
In 1994, Jamie Nabozny sued his Ashland, Wis., school district with the help of attorneys from Lambda Legal, claiming the district didn’t do enough to stop other students from harassing him because of his sexual orientation, despite pleas.
In one incident, Nabozny was beaten outside the school library by a group of students, causing internal bleeding that led to a hospital stay for the teen. When he reported the beating to a school official, according to court documents, “the school official supposedly in charge of disciplining, laughed and told Nabozny that Nabozny deserved such treatment because he is gay.”
In 1996, the federal appeals court overturned a lower court decision and found that the school district was liable in the case. The district offered an out-of-court $900,000 settlement, which Nabozny accepted.
It was a landmark case that gave advocacy groups a cudgel to use against non-responsive school districts.
Since then, actions have been brought against school districts in New York, Minnesota and California that resulted in them paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars and/or agreeing to additional staff training and policy changes.
“Lawsuits are a last resort in severe cases where school districts are not living up to their responsibilities,” Andy Mara, public relations manager for the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, said in an email statement. “But lawsuits indicate that the system is broken, and all parties have already lost in some sense.”
Weishuhn was a student at South O’Brien High School in Paullina. School officials have been careful about talking publicly about his death even as the story has drawn national attention.
“We did nothing wrong,” South O’Brien Superintendent Daniel Moore said, when reached by phone last week. Other than that, Moore had no comment about Weishuhn’s death or, in general, if it’s fair to hold school districts responsible for the actions of students.
Sharon Steckman, a retired teacher and current Democratic state representative from Mason City, said she struggles with the idea that school districts should be held financially liable for bullying.
“Is it solving it? I agree it’s making people more aware, but will it solve the problem?” Steckman asked.
She said bullying is a problem that requires community involvement from parents, police, schools, child services and others to combat. She noted that Mason City already has a bullying hot line, much like one that some lawmakers want to establish statewide.
She’s also given tentative support to legislation introduced late this legislative session by Sioux City Democrat Chris Hall to hold parents responsible for the actions of their children if they bully other kids, similar to how parents are held responsible for their children who are chronically truant.
“What my bill is seeking to accomplish is to engage the parents at a certain point and put the onus on them to stay engaged,” he said.
Hall said where responsibility falls in bullying cases “probably needs to be discussed more” but his bill doesn’t make parents of bullies financially liable if their children hurt others or are believed to have tormented another to the point of suicide.
And the latter cases are much more difficult to prove, said Wolfe, the lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“There are a lot of difficulties in bringing a civil rights case involving a suicide death,” Wolfe said. “There are so many factors that may be involved in (the suicide) decision, and the one person who knows best isn’t here.”