Judge dismisses lawsuit filed against Georgia school district in bullying case
ATLANTA -- Baffled. Hurt. Angry, but determined.
Such were the reactions of David and Tina Long to the dismissal of a lawsuit they filed against Georgia's Murray County School District for failing to stop the bullying of their son, Tyler, who committed suicide in 2009.
U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy dismissed the suit on Monday, writing in a 186-page order that the district was not deliberately indifferent to the bullying Tyler suffered.
"A school district, however, is not deliberately indifferent simply because the measures it takes are ultimately ineffective in stopping harassment," Murphy wrote.
That ruling, the Longs said, lets schools and districts off the hook when students are bullied.
"As long as the school has done the bare minimum, it's OK," David Long said. "It just infuriates me that schools cannot be held accountable."
Attorneys for the district, however, said school officials did all they could when bullying was reported to them. The judge, they said, made the only decision the law allowed him to make.
"That order affirms that this case did not have legal merit," said Matthew Moffett, one of the school district's attorneys. "The school district did everything the law required. They did the best they could. And they are grieving just like everybody else."
The Longs joined a national discussion about bullying in the aftermath of their son's suicide, which they said would not have happened if he had not been bullied.
"We know for a fact that this is why he killed himself," Tina Long said.
The Longs made appearances on the "Ellen DeGeneres Show," "Nightline" and "20/20." A 2011 documentary film, "Bully," included a segment based on what was alleged to have happened to Tyler, who had a form of autism called Asperger's syndrome.
Some of Tyler's former schoolmates said he was frequently taunted and teased in middle school and high school. His books were knocked from his hand, they said, and he was pushed around. Once, he was punched in the face.
In a 2007 email to Murray County school officials, Tina Long complained that her son's clothes were destroyed, he was ridiculed by a teacher and assaulted by other students.
"Tyler is different," Tina Long wrote. "This makes him prone to ridicule. We have told him to ignore others and to not fight back. However, are we causing him to be assaulted more? He needs protecting from the faculty. He needs to be watched. Right now, he is scared of what will happen next. He states, 'Why should I tell? They won't do anything.' " Moffett, however, pointed out that Tina Long subsequently wrote to other school officials, praising them for their help with Tyler. He said some of the bullying that students reported occurred when Tyler was in middle school, long before he committed suicide.
"There is no evidence that the school system received complaints during the calendar year of his suicide," Moffett said. "They did what they were required to do."
That, David Long said, is precisely the problem. He said he wants the legal standard used in such cases changed from deliberate indifference to negligence, which would require those suing a school or district to prove that the school or district knew or should have known about bullying and failed to act in a reasonably prudent manner.
"They're saying the school has no responsibility," David Long said of the ruling. "I think the laws need to be changed."
The Georgia Legislature passed a bill in 2010 sponsored by Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-Atlanta, that requires school officials to notify parents when their child is involved as either the victim or instigator of bullying.
Jacobs' legislation, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, also required the state Department of Education to develop an anti-bullying policy that can be a model for local school systems.
That policy, which has been put in place, includes age-appropriate consequences for bullying from kindergarten through 12th grade.
W. Winston Briggs, an attorney who represents the Longs, said there is already plenty of legal footing to punish districts that don't do enough to stop bullying. He said he was "shocked and disappointed" by Murphy's ruling.
"I think he applied a standard that is unrealistic," Briggs said. "I thought we had enough to get to a jury."
Murphy's ruling, Briggs argued, sends the wrong message to districts and schools. "It tells schools that, in essence, they are immune from suits like this," he said.
The Murray County School District should be held responsible for not doing enough to stop students from bullying Tyler, he said.
"The school district took the ostrich, head-in-the-sand approach: 'Oh, we didn't know about it,' " Briggs said. "Well, that's part of the problem."
Despite their disappointment in the dismissal of their case, Tina and David Long said they will continue speaking out against bullying.
They said they have not made a decision on whether to appeal.
"By no means does this ruling close the book on this matter," David Long said.
(Staff writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this article.)
2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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