U.S. Judge Says School Can Punish “Peripheral” Participants Of Bullying

A school bully isn’t just the person who knocks the victim down but can also include members of the cheering crowd.

That was the conclusion of U.S District Judge William G. Young of Massachusetts, who recently upheld disciplinary action against two students at Hopkinton Public High School, Hopkinton, MA, who were tangentially involved in a campaign of bullying of another student.

Judge Young ruled “school officials have broad discretion to protect students from bullying, and if in the course of their investigations they sometimes draw in students at the periphery of the group, that does not mean they have violated those student’s constitutional rights.”

The case involved a vicious bullying campaign directed against a 15-year-old ninth-grade student on the school’s hockey team by other team members. 

Two students, identified as John Doe and Ben Bloggs, were on the sidelines of the bullying, participating but not as actively as the core group. They were among eight students suspended from the team after being found guilty of violating the school’s antibullying policy. Bloggs lost his position in the National Honor Society due to his disciplinary record.

Doe and Bloggs’ parents filed suit, claiming, among other things, that Doe and Bloggs’ right to free speech and assembly was violated.

Meanwhile, the bullying victim, identified as “Roe,” withdrew from school sports, entered formal mental health treatment, and finally left the school at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year to attend school in Canada.

The Facts

According to Judge Young’s ruling:

Roe’s  father complained to school officials after a student identified as “C.G.” bullied his son on the bus ride home from a school hockey game as other team members looked on. Among other things, C.G. recorded the victim without his permission. 

At the father’s request, Roe was moved out of a class he shared with two hockey team members.

While investigating, school officials confiscated the phone of a team member, M.B., and discovered the existence of a Snapchat group called “Geoff da Man,” consisting of eight hockey team members. School officials preserved photos and videos that were scheduled for automatic deletion. The material showed that five students were sneaking photos and videos of Roe on the bus and at team dinners, sharing them on Snapchat along with extremely derogatory comments, and whispering to Roe in his presence.

“At one point, C.G. tried to get him to say “I am gay” and “dick” on camera.”

Doe and Bloggs, who was supposedly a “friend” of Roe, were members of the Snapchat group who joined in the disparagement of Roe “though to a lesser extent.”

Analysis

Judge Young rejected the Doe and Bloggs’ First Amendment claims, stating there is no requirement that each individual who was bullying Roe contribute in a “substantial” manner to the bullying.

He said a “reasonable” school official could conclude both Doe and Bloggs made derogatory comments about Roe in the group conversations.  Even if their comments were minor relative to the surrounding nastiness, Judge Young writes, “Doe and Bloggs had signaled their approval and encouragement of the bullying by the other hockey teams members… by actively encouraging the group bullying, they could be permissibly disciplined for its results.”

Judge Young observed that children often bully as a group. “The children who stand on the sidewalk and cheer as one of their friends shakes down a smaller student for his lunch money may not be as culpable, but they are not entirely blameless. Similarly, the ‘Geoff Da Man’ group’s conduct as a whole was directed at Roe, and Massachusetts law allows School officials to consider Doe and Bloggs as members of that group.”

Judge Young said the plaintiff’s failed to show the school antibully policy’s prohibition against infliction of “emotional harm” is impermissibly vague because it could include mere teasing. He ruled the phrase provides a school child of common intelligence fair notice of what it means. “If toddlers can exhibit empathy, children of school age are fully capable of understanding that their words can cause emotional harm in others.” he added.

Finally, Judge Young recognized that Doe and Bloggs involvement in Roe’s bullying was minimal compared to that of the other students in the “Geoff Da Man” Snapchat group. “Nevertheless, ” he concluded, “school officials have broad discretion to protect students from bullying, and if in the course of their investigations they sometimes draw in students at the periphery of the group, that does not mean they have violated those student’s constitutional rights.”

The case is John Doe, by and through his next friend Jane Doe, and Ben Bloggs, by and through his next friend Jane Bloggs v. Hopkinton Public Schools, No. 19-11384-WGY (9/22/20).

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