Seeking Justice for Colorado’s Children: Compensation and Relief for Bullied Kids

Jon Topolewski
By: Jon Topolewski
PublishedSep 19, 2023
9 minute read

CONTENT NOTICE: This article mentions self-harm and violence that some may find upsetting.

Every day in Colorado, some children return from school with injuries their parents can’t see. The damage can be physical, emotional, or even material. While some kids open up about the torment they endure, others conceal it behind reassuring mumbles, even as they withdraw from daily life.

As a parent, you wonder what your child’s going through and why school authorities seem to not notice or care. When will it go too far? Here’s some good news: Parents in Colorado may sue for compensation and relief when their kids are bullied.

What is Bullying?

Bullying is any intentional act, expression, or gesture that harms or threatens harm against another. It can happen at school or online and take on a variety of forms, such as:

  • Verbal/digital harassment
  • Physical assault
  • Stalking
  • Shunning
  • Explicit or implied threats
  • Manipulation
  • Coercion

—   Colorado Revised Statutes 22-32-109.1(1)(b)

It involves aggressive behavior that seeks to exploit a perceived imbalance of power. Bullying can happen in a variety of settings, such as the workplace, the military, and especially in school.

Clear laws exist to deter bullying and harassment among adults working together. Unfortunately, the legal framework to protect children from school bullying is less clear. Thus, the problem has persisted.

Bullying in Colorado Schools: A Critical Issue

Getting bullied at school has long been viewed as a normal part of adolescence for unlucky victims. Kids will be kids, and all that. Some parents even encouraged their children to confront their bullies, even if it meant risking a physical fight. Reporting bullying to a parent or teacher was seen as being a “snitch” and only resulted in more social isolation.

Popular entertainment treats getting bullied as a rite of passage, a means of character development, the central conflict in many high school-based dramas. In the real world, though, bullying is a serious problem, whether it occurs at school or online.

The Damage School Bullies Can Do 

The Cyberbullying Research Center reported that in 2019, a staggering 83 percent of Colorado students experienced bullying, a sharp increase from 51 percent in 2016. At the same time, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has warned that bullying leads to:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Lower academic achievement
  • Dropping out of school
Catastrophic Outcomes 

While those are terrible side effects of bullying, sadly, they are not the worst. The CDC has detected a troubling link between bullying and teen suicide.

A recent Yale University study found that bullied children are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide. Meanwhile, a study in England found that at least half of youth suicides were linked to bullying.

December 13, 2013: Tragedy in Centennial 

Arapahoe High School senior Claire Davis sat near the school library talking with a friend when a male classmate approached and shot her. The shooter, 18-year-old Karl Pierson, a classmate, then lobbed a homemade bomb into the library, setting three bookcases on fire.

The killer’s target was the school librarian and debate coach who had recently demoted him from the varsity squad. Claire, who died in the hospital eight days later, had been a random target. Her killer took his own life soon after her.

One troubling aspect of this case was that Claire, who was well-liked among her peers, had not been a target of bullying. The shooter had. Classmates described him as “nerdy, calm, and happy,” though he had often been bullied.

Understanding the Legal Landscape

Prior to 2015, Colorado school districts and their employees could not be held liable for failing to stop bullying in most cases. Sovereign immunity laws generally protected them from lawsuits based upon their failures to prevent bullying.

Under sovereign immunity, public entities and employees were not liable for injury claims unless their actions or lack of action amounted to willful and wanton behavior. This high bar allowed teachers, administrators, and other school staff to look the other way when potential bullying occurred. They could intervene if they wanted to or if the perceived bullying disrupted class. Otherwise, educators could err on the side of respecting students’ privacy.

After the murder of Claire Davis in December of 2013, however, the Colorado legislature put its collective foot down.

An Overview of the Claire Davis School Safety Act 

Former Governor John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 213 — “The Claire Davis Act” — into law in 2015. It went into effect on July 1, 2017.

This Act allows parents to sue schools that don’t do enough to protect students, faculty, and staff from “reasonably foreseeable” acts of violence at school or school-related events. This law gave school districts, charter schools, and their employees a statutory obligation to:

  1. Be more aware of potential bullying and cyberbullying, and
  2. Intervene or take preventative measures to curb foreseeable acts of violence.

Under the Act, any school district or charter school found liable could be ordered to pay as much as — but not more than:

  • $350,000 for an injury to one person in a single occurrence, or
  • $990,000 for injuries to two or more people in a single occurrence.

The law makes clear that schools can be held liable for incidents of murder, first-degree assault, and sexual assault on their campuses. It’s less clear — for now — if the law covers bullying, or how courts will define “reasonably foreseeable” in different cases.

Is it “reasonably foreseeable” that lenient authority will embolden bullies until either they, or the ones they torment, reach a breaking point?

Two cases, one from Grand Junction and another from Arapahoe County, are currently putting The Claire Davis Act to the test. They could shape bullying lawsuits against Colorado schools for years to come.

The Grand Junction Case 

A family in Grand Junction has sued Mesa County Valley School District 51 for not doing enough to protect their special-needs son. The lawsuit cites two bullying incidents during autumn 2020:

  • In the first major incident, students surrounded and harassed the boy in gym class. One of them punched the 13-year-old so hard that he fell on the floor and vomited.
  • Another attack occurred in a school hallway while students filmed it on their smartphones. A classmate struck the boy 27 times, causing severe facial swelling and bleeding. The beating paralyzed a portion of the child’s face, leaving him unable to eat or speak properly.

The parents pulled their son out of public school and switched to online courses. However, in a December 2020 letter to the district, they detailed two years of unaddressed abuses that led to the more serious incidents. They filed their “Claire Davis Act” lawsuit in October of 2022.

The Arapahoe County Case

An autistic student at Eaglecrest High School in Cherry Creek had experienced repeated mistreatment. In October of 2021, one of his tormentors told him, “You are the reason bullies exist.”

Later that month, a kid with a history of violence toward other students shoved the autistic boy down a staircase. The fall broke one of the boy’s legs, leading to significant medical expenses.

The autistic boy’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Cherry Creek School District in February of 2023. They claimed the school had a duty under the Claire Davis Act to protect their teenager from “reasonably foreseeable harm.”

Both the Grand Junction and Arapahoe County cases were pending trial at the time of this writing. This section will be updated as more information comes to light.

Grieving Parents Choose Daylight Over Dollars 

The Claire Davis Act had been used only once to sue a school district prior to October of 2022. It happened after a 2019 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch.

Kendrick Castillo, 18, was fatally shot after tackling one of the two gunmen. Both shooters were fellow students and claimed they wanted to kill the classmates who had bullied them.

Castillo’s parents sued the large charter school under the Claire Davis Act. In February of 2023, they turned down a $400,000 settlement offer, opting instead for a trial and full transparency.

“We’re fighting to share the truth about what led up to the school shooting and create transparency in all schools,” the parents told CBS News.

Suing for Damages Caused by Minors

You’ve probably heard of young people charged with crimes being tried as minors. Did you know that in certain situations, minors under the age of 18 can be sued?

It’s true, however, it is typically the young delinquent’s parents who end up paying. Under Colorado’s Parental Responsibility Statutes, specifically C.R.S. 13-21-107 :

  • If a minor under the age of 18,
  • living with their parents,
  • damages or destroys property belonging to
  • the state, or any city, town, school district, or organization,

… then their parents or guardians can be sued in court for damages up to $3,500.

In addition, the parents of the minor are also liable for court costs and attorney fees.

The Relevance of C.R.S 13-21-107 in Bullying Scenarios 

Parents and legal guardians can be held liable for damages or injury caused by their underage children. Though this statute is often applied to cases of vandalism, it can be used effectively against parents whose children bully others.

For example: Your daughter brings her new iPad to school for note-taking but is bullied by two female classmates. They follow her outside, physically assault her, and damage the iPad. When you reach out to the girls’ parents for compensation, they promise to address the issue with their daughters. However, they decline to cover the repair costs.

In this scenario, your attorney could file a C.R.S. 13-21-107 claim against each girl’s parents. Compensation would be for actual damages, not to exceed $3500 per minor, per incident, but you would also be entitled to receive an award for your reasonable attorney fees and costs.

It Can Add Up 

A damage cap of $3500 might seem paltry compared to potential awards under The Claire Davis Act — until you consider how it’s applied. For example, if bullies target a group of classmates they don’t like, their parents could owe damages (up to $3500 each) to multiple individuals and property owners.

The Role of Insurance in Bullying Cases 

Collecting a court-ordered judgment from a lawsuit is often the most difficult part of litigation. So, how likely are you to receive the compensation you’re entitled to if you successfully sue a bully’s parents? Well, if they have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, a recovery is more likely although not guaranteed.

Many standard policies cover liability for unintentional damage or bodily harm caused by:

  • the homeowner/renter,
  • their spouse, or
  • any relatives or minor children living in the home.

The question will be whether bullying by minor children is intentional or unintentional. In other words, did the parents have an opportunity to address their minor child’s behavior? Should they have been more aware? Or did the bullying incident take them by surprise?

These are questions for the insurer and the bully’s parents to sort out. Under this Statute, however, the parents are still liable for the damages, regardless if their insurance pays.

More Recent Colorado Anti-Bullying Laws 

Since the passage of the Claire Davis School Safety Act, more recent tragedies linked to bullying have led to new laws.

  • Ashawnty’s Law (2018) mandated the creation of a model policy to prevent bullying in schools. The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) updates this model policy every three years for all public school districts and charter schools. This law is named after a 10-year-old girl who tragically took her own life after being bullied.
  • Jack and Cait’s Law (2021) is an enhancement to Ashawnty’s Law. It requires the CDE to consult with stakeholders, particularly parents of bullied students, when updating the state’s anti-bullying policy. This law also ensures that school policies differentiate between conflict, harassment, and bullying. Additionally, it addresses cyberbullying during online instruction. The law is named for a Cherry Creek boy and a Montrose girl whose suicides were linked to bullying.

The CDE’s model anti-bullying policy gets updated every three years. However, every public school district and charter school in Colorado is encouraged to create their own policy. The CDE’s model is just that; a model.

Roadmaps to Accountability 

Neither Ashawnty’s Law nor Jack and Cait’s Law specifically allows parents to sue a school for damages. Rather, they require schools to implement and follow specific anti-bullying policies. \

Each school district and charter school must post its specific policy on its website. This can become an accountability roadmap for fact finders if unchecked bullying leads to a serious incident.

For example, here is the Boulder Valley School District’s anti-bullying policy.

Establishing a Case

The days of relying on your tormented child to confront his or her bully are over. Yes, in the Hollywood version of the story, that seems to always solve the problem. While it can work in real life, too, it carries serious risks — risks children and their parents shouldn’t have to take.

A no-nonsense attorney armed with a lawsuit is the best response to arrogant bullies, apathetic parents, and passive school authorities.

Determining Liability in School Violence 

Negligence on the part of educators and administrators empowers bullies and leads to serious, even fatal incidents. Therefore, one key to hold a school district liable is proving negligence.

This requires showing that:

  1. The school district owed a duty of care to its students;
  2. The district breached that duty;
  3. The district’s failure to uphold its duty caused the injuring incident, and
  4. The harm done by the incident is provable and legally compensable.

The first factor is self-evident. Minors spend half of their waking hours in school for more than half of the year. District policies outline how administrators, teachers, and school staff should respond to or report bullying incidents. These “reasonable care” policies also call for implementing plans to educate, supervise, and counsel students about bullying.

Proving the last three factors depends on showing that the injuring incident — a shooting, serious assault, or suicide — was “reasonably foreseeable.”

What Makes an Incident “Reasonably Foreseeable?” 

This is the $350,000 question. There’s a stronger case for foreseeability if records show educators knew about bullying incidents but didn’t act. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that straightforward.

Schools can assert they took reasonable precautions, that the incident occurred despite their efforts. Liability may depend on case specifics, such as:

  • the severity of harm,
  • the school’s history of violent incidents, and
  • the ages of the involved students.
Can Schools Monitor Potential Problem Students? 

The state’s model policy calls for “climate surveys” to assess potential danger, though they’re essentially threat assessments. Such evaluations may rely on controversial — and unhelpful — student stereotypes.

Bottom line? Insufficient case law means there’s a lot of blank space around questions of “reasonable foreseeability.” It will be intriguing to see how courts handle Claire Davis Act cases moving forward. 

Seeking Compensation and Relief 

Initiating the Process

Filing a lawsuit is not the first step. First, you must file a claim against the Colorado school district you intend to hold liable. This is important: You cannot initiate a lawsuit against the school district if you haven’t filed a claim.

You have 182 days from the date of the injury to file your claim. It must include:

  • Your name and address,
  • A statement recounting the incident in detail,
  • The names of any educators or school district employees involved,
  • Details of the injury sustained, and
  • The amount of damages you’re requesting.

If any of the above information is incomplete, your subsequent lawsuit could get dismissed.

Once you’ve submitted your claim, the school district has 90 days to act. If the district denies your claim, or takes no action in those 90 days, your lawsuit can proceed.

Types of Potential Compensation 

In a personal injury lawsuit against a school, you can win both economic and non-economic damages.

Economic damages cover concrete expenses such as:

  • Current and future medical bills,
  • property damage,
  • costs of counseling and psychiatric treatment, and
  • lost wages.

Lost wages occur when a parent must take time off work as a result of the injury incident. This could include staying with their injured child at the hospital, accompanying them to counseling, or, sadly, arranging a funeral.

Non-economic damages cover more subjective harms, such as:

  • pain and suffering,
  • emotional distress,
  • disfigurement, and
  • loss of enjoyment of life.

Non-economic damages seek relief from harm that can’t be measured in dollars. Consider the cases mentioned above. The student who suffered partial paralysis of his face could have trouble speaking and eating for a long time, perhaps permanently.

Speak to an Attorney if Your Child’s Getting Bullied 

Schools should be a place for children to learn, and grow, and make friends. When your child is getting bullied, you can feel helpless as a parent. You’re certainly not, though. At Robinson & Henry, experienced, aggressive attorneys are ready to fight back against indifferent schools and parents. Do you have a case? Let’s find out. Call 303-688-0944 to begin your case assessment.

More Than Just Lawyers. Lawyers for Your Life.

Learn more about our law firm’s philosophy and values.