June 22, 2013

Court upholds bullying ruling

Rachel Brown

— A Murray County teen whose parents said he committed suicide almost four years ago because he was bullied at school was a “sad, indeed a tragic case,” but the boy’s parents didn’t prove school officials were responsible for his death, a ruling from a federal court of appeals said this week.

A three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision in 2012 to dismiss a lawsuit filed against Murray County Schools and Murray County High School Principal Gina Linder. The lawsuit filed by David and Tina Long of Chatsworth asked for unspecified damages and claimed school officials knew their son, Tyler, had been physically and verbally bullied repeatedly, and they failed to adequately address the issues.

In a written statement, the Longs said, “It’s a sad day in our society when we live under a false pretense that our kids are safe in schools. Our voice is not going to fall silent. We fought for Tyler when he was alive, and we will continue to fight for him (and others) through our project www.everythingstartswith1.org.”

The judges wrote that the plaintiffs needed to show “deliberate indifference,” and that school officials in Tyler’s case couldn’t have reasonably known the measures they took to address the bullying weren’t working. The judges acknowledged proving deliberate indifference is an “exacting standard.” The Longs’ attorney, W. Winston Briggs, said the standard is too high.

“It’s pretty much a coffin nail for someone bringing a suit,” he said. He said it is likely the Longs will not appeal this decision.

An attorney for Murray County Schools didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment, but attorneys and school officials have said in the past school officials took the right steps in addressing the bullying under the circumstances.

Tyler was 17 when he hanged himself at his home in October 2009. He had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and several other psychological issues and suffered multiple instances of physical and verbal bullying at school, according to his parents and witnesses.

When Judge Harold Murphy dismissed the Longs’ lawsuit in 2012, he wrote that although school officials “could have issued more discipline or taken more preventative measures, given that defendants investigated each incident and took remedial measures to prevent future, similar incidents, the court cannot find that defendants’ responses to the individual incidents identified by plaintiff were clearly unreasonable.”

Appeals court judges Frank M. Hull, R. Lanier Anderson and Jerome Farris wrote in their decision this week they agreed with the lower court’s reasoning.