The suicide of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera, who hung himself with a belt after students called him “gay” one too many times, is now a rallying point for gay and child advocacy organizations. Groups like GLSEN are finding their anti-bullying tactics in high demand as schools rush to beef up the safety of their students in the wake of two youth tragedies in a row. And in the meantime, the district attorney in DeKalb, Ga., is figuring out whether criminal charges should be filed — and against who.
Although DA Gwen Keyes Fleming says she isn’t sure any charges will be filed, doing so could see a snowball effect. Under the threat of prosecution, school districts (who may have a “mandatory reporting” requirement for teachers and staff) would have even more motivation to bolster anti-bullying efforts. Faced with the possibility of being held criminally negligent, teachers might get that extra boost of motivation to alert administrators to anti-gay (or other) bullying in school. Administrators, then, could be more prone to promote tolerance, alert the bullies’ parents and make changes in the classroom, and start a dialogue with the victim’s family.
But while Fleming sorts out criminal liability, Herrera’s family has another avenue: civil litigation. If the school failed to alert or protect Jaheem, negligence becomes the school district’s nightmare in court.
All of which leads to one thing: Letting the courts decide who, if anyone, is the responsible party here. Teachers, for not intervening? Other students and their parents, for harassment? Administrators, for not providing a safe environment?