Parents sue districts to stop bullies at schools

? He was just 12 years old when the taunts began. Though straight, his classmates called him gay and teased the girls who befriended him.

His parents talked to officials in the Tonganoxie, Kan., school district, but the taunts continued until their son dropped out of high school last fall at the age of 16 and earned his GED.

In years past, that might have been the end of the story. But education groups say parents are increasingly taking school officials to court for failure to stop bullying.

That’s what the Tonganoxie teen’s parents did earlier this month when they sued school and district officials. The lawsuit alleges the school enforced its sexual harassment policy when it involved male students harassing female students but did nothing when classmates began calling the boy “jack-off-kid” and “masturbator boy.”

The family, who asked that their name not be disclosed, is seeking unspecified damages. The suit alleges that before their son dropped out of school, his grades began to suffer and his family doctor prescribed antidepressant medication and recommended counseling.

“I called everyone I thought could help me, and I just couldn’t get it stopped,” said the teen’s father. “It’s like my son didn’t matter.”

Messages left for the school district’s attorney, Steven Pigg, were not returned.

Though it’s hard to quantify the prevalence of such suits — a spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America said they weren’t tracked — some say this type of litigation appears to be on the rise.

“I wish school systems would protect students from harassment and bullying because it is the right thing to do. But if they are doing it because they are afraid of being hit with lawsuits, bring on the lawsuits,” said Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a New York-based advocacy group.

“I think there is a growing sense that this treatment is wrong and they don’t have to take it, and we are seeing a lot more people turn to the courts when school districts don’t provide a safe environment,” he said.

Joan Duffell, director of community education for the nonprofit Committee for Children, said there was no reason to believe bullying was more prevalent than before, but she said parents were more aware that it was a significant problem and wouldn’t put up with it.