Cyberbullying: Legal Options to Help Your Child
Our virtual world has created the perfect environment for relentless cyberbullying. The tormenting can lead to anxiety, depression, and, in extreme cases, attempts or completion of suicide in children as young as 9 years old.
While Colorado law prohibits kids from bullying each other at school (C.R.S.A. § 22-32-109.1), the law does not apply to what happens after class, when a lot of cyberbullying occurs. As a parent, it’s tough to watch online harassment affect your child, but it’s important to know your hands are not tied.
This article explains your legal options if your child is being bullied online, and we also cover how to defend your kid if they’re the one being accused of the harassment.
Cyberbullying is Against Colorado Law
Two Colorado tragedies in the same year spurred new legislation that gives parents more options to hold schools and bullies (or their parents) accountable.
Until recently, Colorado didn’t identify cyberbullying in the state’s harassment laws. That changed after Highlands Ranch teen Kiana Arellano tried to take her own life in 2013. Classmates ruthlessly cyberbullied Kiana in text messages. Kiana survived, but she suffered brain damage and is wheelchair-bound.
That same year, an Arapahoe High School student shot Claire Davis. Claire later passed away from her injuries.
As a result of the two incidents, state legislators passed laws to address cyberbullying and school violence.
Colorado’s Online Harassment Law
Enacted in 2015, Kiana Arellano’s Law makes it a crime for someone to harass another person using “interactive electronic devices,” in other words, cyberbullying. That includes harassment on social media sites and apps, like Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp, and GroupMe.
Schools are Not Immune from Lawsuits
The Claire Davis School Safety Act (C.R.S. 24-10-106.3) allows school districts to be held liable for violent incidents that occur at school or school-sanctioned events.
Under Claire’s law, school districts and charter schools no longer have government immunity from lawsuits. Consequently, the school district may owe damages if its school cannot show how it tried to prevent school violence if someone is seriously injured or dies at school.
What is Cyberbulling?
“…technological innovation has provided apparent license and a ready platform to those wishing to provoke terror.” — People ex rel. R.D., 2020 Colo.
Cyberbullying is harassment that happens on social media, in text messages, emails, etc. Today, cyberbullying is considered harassment.
In order for someone to violate the state’s harassment law, their actions must be done “with the intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person.” However, free speech is not considered harassment.
In Colorado harassment includes:
- striking, shoving, kicking, or touching a person or subjecting someone to physical contact
- directing obscene language or gestures to another person in a public place
- following someone in or about a public place
- directly or indirectly initiating communication via technology that’s intended to harass or threaten
- repeatedly calling with no legitimate conversation
- calling over and over at inconvenient hours to invade privacy or interfere with someone’s enjoyment
- repeatedly insulting, taunting, challenging, or offensively communicating with someone to provoke a violent or disorderly response
The state law that directly addresses bullying in schools defines bullying as:
“any written or oral expression, or physical or electronic act or gesture, or a pattern thereof, that is intended to coerce, intimidate, or cause any physical, mental, or emotional harm to any student.” C.R.S. § 22-32-109.1(1)(b)
What Can I Do if My Child is Being Bullied?
You have a few options to protect your child. First, it’s important to document as much of the harassment as you can. Take screenshots, for instance, of electronic bullying. Write down dates and descriptions of the attacks.
Notify the School of the Cyberbullying
Since cyberbullying and in-person bullying often go hand in hand, you should notify your child’s school officials about what’s going on.
Because Colorado law requires school districts to implement a plan that addresses bullying prevention and discipline, the school has a duty to address the situation.
In a 2016 Colorado Court of Appeals case that reversed a middle schooler’s disorderly conduct conviction, the court noted that schools can discipline students for bullying.
“A school administrator may, consistent with the First Amendment, discipline a student for broadcasting vulgar and offensive speech…And Colorado, like most states, has an anti-bullying statute that gives schools the specific authority to prescribe consequences for conduct that satisfies the definition of bullying.” 𑁋 People ex rel. R.C., 2016 COA 166
Inform the Cyberbully’s Parents
If possible, the cyberbully’s parents should be notified. You could ask the school to call, phone the parents yourself, or have your lawyer send a letter. It’s important the other child’s parents are put on notice.
They can be held liable for their child’s behavior if they are made aware of the harassment and do nothing to stop it.
Report the Cyberbullying to Police
File a police report if your child is a victim of cyberbullying. Again, it is against state law for your child to be harassed in this manner. By contacting the police, you’re also officially recording the bullying.
Obtain a Restraining Order
You may even consider hiring an attorney to help you get a restraining order from the court prohibiting contact with the other child.
A Bully Won’t Leave My Kid Alone. What Can I Do?
Unfortunately, sometimes the best efforts don’t hinder a determined cyberbully. If you’ve notified the school, the other parents, and the police, it’s time to speak with an attorney.
File a Personal Injury Claim
Cyberbullying often involves defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other civil claims. The effects of bullying can cause your child to experience physical and emotional distress for which they need professional help.
Bullying and Cyberbullying Can Lead to:
- Physical Injuries
- Emotional Trauma
- Behavioral Issues
- Ostracized by Peers
- Fear of School
- Decline in Grades
- Eating Problems
- Sleep Disruptions
You may be entitled to damages if involved adults don’t try to stop the harassment.
Parents of bullies can be held liable for their child’s behavior. You may also be able to receive monetary damages to help pay for medical and therapeutic costs. Judges can award punitive damages in egregious cases.
Civil cases can be complex. A civil litigation or personal injury attorney can help you assess your case.
Sue the School
Today, a child may be eligible to recover damages if they are seriously injured in an act of violence at school. In the case of Claire Davis, an investigation found major failures by the school administration and the district.
Therefore, you may be able to sue if your child is seriously injured at school or at a school-sanctioned event.
According to state law, the school district must show how it tried to prevent the violent event that resulted in serious bodily harm. A school can be held liable for up to $350,000 if a court finds it was negligent. Damages increase with the number of victims.
Furthermore, if your child was injured, talk with a litigation attorney who is well-versed in Colorado law.
Push for Criminal Charges
Here’s where state law gets a little complicated. Kiana Arellano’s Law makes cyberbullying a misdemeanor, punishable with up to a $750 fine and six months in jail. If the harassment becomes more severe, such as stalking, the penalties increase. We’re talking felony charges, years-long jail time, and six-figure fines.
However, a child bully may not go to jail if they are charged and found guilty. Rather, the juvenile court system will most likely handle the case if misdemeanor charges are filed.
When someone under 18 years of age commits a crime, they’re part of the juvenile justice system, unless their crime is severe enough to warrant a transfer to adult court. Also, a minor convicted of harassment won’t necessarily spend time in juvenile detention. A juvenile judge has great discretion about what kind of sentence to hand out.
If the child has no prior issues with the law until the cyberbullying incident, the minor may receive probation or community service. In some cases, a child could remain under court supervision.
File a Wrongful Death Claim
Parents can file a wrongful death claim if they lose their child to cyberbullying. This type of cyberbullying case can sometimes lead to criminal charges.
How to Defend My Child Accused of Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is a serious matter. Even if you believe your child has done nothing wrong, it’s important to take the claims seriously.
A lawyer can help you uncover whether what your child allegedly did was illegal and whether you, too, could be liable for their conduct.
Colorado law states harassment occurs when there’s intent to annoy, harass, alarm someone. Exercising one’s free speech rights does not constitute harassment. That’s why it’s important to get legal clarity on your child’s situation.
Robinson & Henry’s criminal defense attorneys are well-versed in this arena.
Talk to an Attorney About Your Case
We can help you and your child through this difficult situation. Whether you’re considering a personal injury lawsuit or need help with criminal defense, Robinson & Henry has a team of attorneys dedicated to both areas of law. They can assist you with obtaining a court order, writing a cease and desist letter, or filing a lawsuit. We will work to ensure your child does not experience additional harm. Call 303-688-0944 to begin your free case assessment.