What Legal Action Can I Take Against a Cyber Bully?

With school back in session — and remote learning the new norm — kids are facing virtual trolling.

This week, Ella writes in with a question about what legal actions she may take against a cyberbully:

I am a stay-at-home mom and have two children. My son is in second grade. My daughter, Lilia, is in middle school and has just completed seventh grade. Both children went to remote learning in early March and used iPads to connect with their teachers and classmates. During this time, they used Google to do chats and Zoom for remote video instruction. Lilia has had trouble fitting in at middle school, and she has told me about a particular young boy in her class that has made fun of her throughout this school year. She wouldn’t tell me exactly what he was doing, but said that he was, “very mean.” My husband and I decided not to talk to the school administration as it seemed like typical kid behavior, and my daughter, for the most part, seemed happy, and her grades were excellent.

Just before the school year ended, my daughter came to me in tears, holding her iPad. The boy that she had told me about, let’s call him Chad, had posted horrible things in a Google Chat. My daughter is biracial, and Chad compared her to a fat ape’s picture and commented on her hair, saying it looked, “ghetto.”

Because her entire class was on this chat session, they saw the picture Chad posted and his racist language that embarrassed and upset my daughter. I don’t know if the teacher witnessed this or if the chat was saved. Chad is white, and both his parents are white. My daughter is one of the few biracial children in this school. I thought the environment was more evolved in Northern California. These actions go beyond childhood stuff, and I would like to press charges against the parents and the child. I want justice for my daughter. What are my options?

Dear Ella,

I am so sorry that your daughter is going through this during an already difficult time. Thankfully, California has realized how detrimental bullying is to the development of our children and enacted several laws to help protect victims. Education Code Section 48900, subsection (R)(1) defines bullying as any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or utilizing an electronic bill, and including one or more acts committed by a pupil which either 

  1. places the pupil in fear of harm to that pupil’s person or property, 
  2. causes a reasonable pupil to experience substantial detrimental effect on the pupil’s physical or mental health, 
  3. creates a reasonable pupil to experience significant interference with the pupil’s academic performance, and 
  4. causes a reasonable pupil to experience substantial interference with the pupil’s ability to participate in or benefit from services or privileges provided by a school.

Your child is being bullied, and action against Chad is warranted.

The first thing that must be done is to report this act of bullying and any and all other acts of Chad’s bullying to the school district. I would suggest that you do this in writing. You may want to sit down with your daughter so you can go over all the acts, as there may be some that she was unwilling or ashamed to tell you. Rarely does a bully strike only once; bullying is usually a systematic attack on a victim that continues for months. The school must investigate the complaint and take action. This action can result in a layered approach to discipline depending on the severity of the acts. The school district can issue a written warning, give out detention, suspend, or expel the offending child. Often parents of the victim child consider a jurisdictional transfer for their child to effectively take them out of the past environment and allow them to start new at another school.

Besides making sure that your daughter’s educational needs are met, you may also consider having her talk to a school counselor or a therapist to process these feelings. In some instances, the shame and torment of bullying can lead to psychological trauma, even including self-harming. A therapist can help your daughter voice her feelings, process them and move forward from them. Often, children can find solace in a trusted therapist, and this helps them deal with the trauma that their hearts and brains can’t process yet. 

You may also consider a civil action against the school district. This requires that you take action quickly as the statute of limitations is different for government entities. Various state and federal laws would apply to racial discrimination and bullying. As you may uncover more acts of bullying after speaking to your daughter, I would urge you to consider talking to an attorney to consider civil legal remedies. Always, there is a balancing act between determining what is best for your daughter emotionally and (the level of) legal participation. 

Christopher B. Dolan is the owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Aimee Kirby is a Senior Managing Attorney based in our Los Angeles office. Dolan’s weekly column appears as sponsored content. Email questions and topics for future articles to: help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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