By Gary Walker

With the start of a new school year, many students have reason to worry that bullying awaits them on campus and online. Most of it is verbal harassment and rumor campaigns, but some of it rises to physical assault. Both can have tragic consequences.

Recent TV news reports of a student suffering brain damage during an alleged bullying assault at a local school brings the perennial topic to the fore once again. The family of a 13-year-old boy is suing the Playa Vista-adjacent Animo Westside Charter School on Jefferson Boulevard, claiming a January 2018 bullying incident that involved punching and choking left the boy with permanent injuries. Video footage of the incident shows an adult staff member walking past the struggle but failing to intervene. The family’s attorney, Ben Meiselas of the high-profile law firm Geragos & Geragos, alleges a systemic pattern of bullying at the school “has been festering for some time, and we believe it boiled over with my client.”

Animo is managed by Green Dot Public Schools, which has issued a statement on Tuesday that the incident occurred during an afterschool program and that the school has yet to be served with a legal complaint. “We take seriously the safety of all our students and quickly address bullying. We launched an internal investigation and took steps to ensure that all students were safe in school and in any afterschool programs,” it reads in part. “We treat each other with respect and do not tolerate bullying in any form. … We promptly and thoroughly investigate any complaint and take appropriate corrective action.”

Westside experts who are not affiliated with the lawsuit say the internet and social media can give bullies a problematic cloak of anonymity that they didn’t have a generation ago.

“A person who is being cyberbullied often feels helpless because they don’t know who is attacking them,” said Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, a Westside-based certified school psychologist who has extensively researched school-related aggression and violence.

The nonprofit i-Safe Foundation reports that more than half of teens and adolescents have been bullied online, and about the same number have engaged in cyberbullying.

“We’ve had bullying as long as we’ve had children. Social media gives it the ability to spread very quickly,” said Dr. Martha McCarthy, an educational law expert at Loyola Marymount University who has written a book on bullying.

While schools attempting to intervene may face pushback on First Amendment grounds, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued rulings against free speech assertions when speech “portends a physical threat to school safety,” she said. “Courts seem to agree that if you can show it’s disruptive, a school can take action.

“When kids don’t want to go to school, when they engage in self-injury, if their grades decline, if a child becomes very withdrawn or depressed, and bed-wetting in younger children could be warning signs,” Mihalas said. “The one piece of advice that I can give all parents is to always support your child. No child ever deserves to be bullied.”

RESOURCES:

Stop Bullying Right Now 24-hour Hotline: (800) 273-TALK

California Youth Crisis Hotline:
(800) 843-5200

Be A Hero: (866) BeA-Hero;
866BeAHero.com

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