• Cullen and Dykman LLP Blogs

  • Archives

  • When The Assistant Principal Is a Cyberbully

    These days we hear of students cyberbullying other students for all sorts of reasons:  race, weight, popularity, sexuality, familial economic status, etc.  Every day kids are not going to school because of comments made about them online by other students.  Kids should not have to deal with that and they certainly should not be cyberbulllied by an assistant principal.  In one South Carolina town, that is exactly what happened.

    Charles Fowler, an assistant principal at Walhalla High School in South Carolina has resigned after he posted a picture of a Kindergarten student on Facebook and compared her to reality TV personality Honey Boo Boo.  Allegedly, the assistant principal saw the student in a local Walmart and captioned the picture “Honey Boo Boo in Walmart”, believed to be a reference to the weight of both girls.

    The Kindergartner was so distraught she complained to family members “…people are calling me Honey Boo Boo.”, “…I’ve got to lose some weight” and “I don’t want people to see me like this.”  The student also missed a day of school due to being upset about the post.  The incident led to a petition calling for Fowler’s termination.  In fact, his own son allegedly signed the petition along with hundreds of other people.

    Victims of cyber-bullying may experience many of the same effects as children who are bullied in person, such as a drop in grades, low self-esteem, a change in interests, or depression. However, cyber-bullying can seem more extreme to its victims because of several factors:

    • It occurs in the child’s home where children often feel safe;
    • Often kids say things online that they wouldn’t say in person, mainly because they can’t see the other person’s reaction; and
    • It can be anonymous, although it wasn’t in this case.

    A federal district court in New York addressed bullying in T.K. v. New York City Dep’t of Ed., 779 F. Supp. 2d 289 (E.D.N.Y. 2011). Although the case did not concern cyber-bullying specifically, the court did note that “the internet has become fertile ground for bullying behavior” Id. at 299. In T.K. the school allegedly did nothing to prevent a disabled student from being bullied so severely that it allegedly reduced her opportunity for an education. The court denied the Department of Education’s motion for summary judgment. Importantly, the court noted that if harassment of a disabled student is found to have occurred, the “school must take appropriate steps to prevent it in the future.” Id. at 317. The court stated, “It is not necessary to show that the bullying prevented all opportunity for an appropriate education, but only that it is likely to affect the opportunity of the student for an appropriate education.” Id.  The court also stated that the bullying does not need to be related to the disability. However, the child in T.K. was protected by a statute specific to children with disabilities.

    As evidenced by what happened in South Carolina, school districts must advise employees and students about cyberbullying and the far reaching implications of such behavior.  If you or your institution has any questions or concerns regarding education related issues, please email Cynthia A. Augello at caugello@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3753.