Despite the best prevention efforts of anti-bullying programs or avoidance tactics by potential victims, students can feel mistreated in almost any setting.
While children are at school, they have a supportive framework in which to voice a complaint. But, what about after school, in their neighborhood or on the playground? This is when parents become an even more vital key to ending bullying behavior. Although what some students may consider bullying has no legal consequences, if the situation can be deemed assault or harassment then legal action can be taken.
According to Terry Gallaher, director of the Bradley County Juvenile Court, there is no legal definition for bullying.
“It’s not a charge for bullying, but there is a charge for assault and harassment,” Gallaher said.
When this occurs, parents can file a petition with the juvenile court to have the issue looked into.
“We don’t normally take a petition by a child without a parent,” Gallaher said.
In the petition, the child and parent give statements telling what happened. Many parents describe the incident as bullying, according to Gallaher.
“The normal process is a petition is filed. They are notified by the clerks that there is an arraignment date and they read the charges,” Gallaher said.
Then the other party mentioned in the petition is given a copy of the petition and they have a chance to hire an attorney. Then there is a hearing.
As part of the process, a no contact order may be issued stating the children cannot have contact with each other.
Another legal term used to describe what some would call bullying is disorderly conduct.
When to take legal action
The juvenile judge decides which petitions go to the next level and which ones do not. A petition must outline that the action meets the legal criteria for harassment or assault .
“A parent would have to have documentation and proof that a crime happened,” Gallaher said. He said this is one reason the juvenile court always asks if local law enforcement were made aware of the incident. If a police report has been filed then a copy of the report is filed with the petition.
“If they’re found innocent, and the petition doesn’t stand up, then the peron who files the petition will be charged with the court costs,” Gallaher said.
An aggravated assault charge is a felony charge and must be filed by a police officer or detective, according to Gallaher.
Parents also have the option to speak with juvenile court staff to determine if filing a petition would be the best action to take. The court can mediate even before a petition is filed to see if the situation can be resolved before reaching that point.
If the petition goes to court and a child is found guilty of harassment, additional steps are taken.
“The essence of juvenile law is to rehabilitate, so the child is required to go through a rehabilitation program,” Gallaher said.
Gallaher said the district attorney would represent the victim in these cases. The district attorney can also be contacted with questions about whether or not a petition should be filed.
In his work with students, Gallaher has seen that bullying is a “hot topic” students want to talk about.
“The kids are needing role models on how to reconcile and to resolve conflict,” Gallaher said.
The Juvenile Court director said sometimes people look to the quick fix, such as filing a petition with the court, rather than trying to work out and talk through their issues.
Gallaher said getting bullying issues resolved can be frustrating for parents, but there are things they can do. Sometimes varying definitions of bullying lead to this frustration when parents feel bullying occurred but it does not meet the requirements outlined in school policy.
“There is a frustration there. I see it every day in the kids and in the parents, so that’s why were are trying to implement this system of restorative justice. We want to give them something that works,” Gallaher said.
Gallaher said his job is “to find the best possible solution” in each petition case that is pursued.
“To me the best possible solution is to restore relationships that have been damaged by whatever incident has happened, if possible,” Gallaher said.
Juvenile Court approach
For first time offenders, the juvenile court can try to mediate a resolution without the issue going to a courtroom. This is accomplished through mediation, informal adjustments and restorative justice.
Restorative justice gets the victim and the accused and their parents in a room to discuss the issue before it can make its way to court.
“In that process ... there can be counseling, community service, anger management, things can be put in place that the child is required to do," Gallaher said.
“The end result is relationships are restored,” Gallaher said. “It affects the whole culture.”
The restorative justice approach canonly be used h is only used when the accused child admits guilt and takes responsibility for their actions.
“It saves the taxpayer money, and it also keeps the child from having a record,” Gallaher said.
Gallaher said the restorative justice process keeps hard feelings and bitterness from creating the same situation again and again. It also provides an opportunity to educate about problem-solving skills.
“If it’s really done right, and it’s effective and it’s successful, the bully really becomes an advocate for non-bullying, and he becomes a leader to stop it,” Gallaher said.
Both parties have to be willing to work things out in order for this model to be effective. This approach is considered on a case-by-case basis.
Gallaher emphasized the importance of taking children’s claims of harassment seriously. He said listening to children is important to figure out what is really going on.
“Bullying is worse in middle school, statistically,” Gallaher said, “and it decreases as you get into high school.”