Posted on October 26, 2010 in Personal Injury
We have all known bullies. Somewhere in each of our lives, we have all had to deal with people who, for whatever reason, chose to make our lives difficult. Sometimes we call it “being picked on” and sometimes it’s something more serious. Unfortunately, however you describe it, “bullying” is still around. And, judging by the news, the problem is getting worse.
To me, bullying and hazing seem to come from the same nasty place in people. In my opinion, hazing is just bullying with a “group think” mentality. Hazing creates system where one group of people bullies another group, instead of one to one. It allows people who wouldn’t normally act like a bully to hide behind the group mentality of, “it’s just a ritual that everyone goes through.” Hazing is just as wrong as bullying, and can lead to the same types of harm. For example, here is a recent article about pledges at a Yale University fraternity who were ordered to march through campus chanting an extremely disgusting message towards women. This conduct doesn’t only impact the “pledges,” it makes the larger community around them feel bullied and unsafe, especially if you’re a woman.
If we look at Indiana law, we see that our legislature has written a statute defining and criminalizing hazing. I.C. 35-42-2-2.
(a) As used in this section, "hazing" means forcing or requiring another person:
(1) with or without the consent of the other person; and
(2) as a condition of association with a group or organization;
to perform an act that creates a substantial risk of bodily injury.
Because hazing is recognized to be harmful, the Indiana legislature even took the unique step of shielding a person from liability who comes forward and reports hazing to the authorities. Clearly, the legislature determined that a person should not fear being sued if they come forward and report hazing. In fact, reporting hazing is so important that the person who has the courage to come forward receives legal protections in exchange. Some bullying also violates federal law.
Each bullying or hazing situation is unique in some fashion. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t always help. There is the Teaching Moment Approach, the Let’s Try to Understand Each Other Approach, the They’ll Outgrow It Approach, or the Zero-Tolerance Approach. For every kid that outgrows bullying, there’s a perpetrator of domestic violence. It’s hard to know what’s right when there are so many variables. There is some promising research in encouraging other students (called bystanders) to intervene in the bully-victim dynamic. By removing the bully’s audience, bystanders remove his power. And, if even one student is willing to tell the bully to stop, others tend to follow. There is also a growing movement to encourage the victims to continue to cope. See, for example, the It Gets Better Project and this video from the White House.
Bullying is a big problem. It is not just kids being kids. The act of bullying undermines self-esteem, exacerbates depression and has the potential to end in violence, for both the aggressor and the victim. In the tragic worst-case scenarios that we’ve seen in the news, this can include suicide and/or homicide. Bullying is not about anger or a conflict. It is about contempt. It is about believing that another person is not worthy of dignity. Whether that belief is based on gender, faith, race, ethnicity, size, hair color, sexual orientation (actual or perceived), disability or any other mental dividing line between “us” and “them,” the bully believes that the other person deserves physical pain and public humiliation.
In hazing, this group bullying mentality often creates a scenario where the “pledges” in a fraternity or the first-year players on a sports team are embarrassed in front of the entire group. Often times, they are forced to perform somewhat dangerous activities involving alcohol, physical exertion and/or lack of sleep. They are mentally abused, given extremely degrading names, or repeatedly insulted, all in an effort to break the individual’s spirit. They want to belong to the group, so they tolerate the abuse. Unfortunately, they sometimes do so to their detriment.
We need to use every tool at our disposal to prevent the loss of even one more life to bullying. We need to prevent the long-term effects of bullying by stopping it before it starts. This includes filing a lawsuit in the right situation. The purpose of the lawsuit is to hold the wrongdoers accountable, to compensate the victim, and to send a clear message that this type of conduct cannot be tolerated.
Our office has successfully handled cases of bullying and hazing against fraternities, schools, and individuals. What makes a case legally actionable depends very much on the facts.
Generally, the cause of action revolves around a person or group of people who have known about the conduct for some time, and done nothing. The damages that are sought involve the infliction of emotional distress that the victim has endured for a people of time. If an organization is involved, like a school, sports team, or fraternity, then issues of negligent supervision and/or negligent retention of an employee are also considered in proving that the organization should be held responsible for the conduct of its member(s).
Hopefully, parent interaction or proper supervision by school employees can stop any small bullying or hazing from growing into something bigger. When that doesn’t happen, and when bad situations turn tragic, the last resort is sometimes the courts. In one hazing case, my law partner, Betsy Greene, was successful in negotiating a “Zero Tolerance” policy be enacted at a school that had clearly turned a blind eye over the years to hazing.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that every bully needs to be sued, nor am I saying that any organization that has initiation rituals should be brought to court. That is not the case. Certainly, most situations can be resolved by active parents, caring teachers and principals, coaches, etc. However, in the most serious of situations or where an organization is failing to live up to its responsibilities, legal action is an option that should be considered.
At the end of the day, all anyone wants is for abusive behavior to stop. It is wrong. Everyone knows it. If it can be stopped with a stern discussion or by some other means of reasonable discipline that makes the wrongdoer realize that his or her behavior is unacceptable, then that is all anyone wants. But in a situation where someone feels helpless and unable to stop the bullying or hazing, people need to know that they have legal rights. They have a place to turn. There are ways to make the harassment stop. Lawyers know how to fight back against bullies, legally.
Bullying is not just kids being kids. Bullying is not about anger or a conflict. It is about contempt and has the potential to end in violence, including the tragic worst-case scenarios of homicide and/or suicide as we’ve recently seen in the news.