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Here are some frequently asked legal questions around bullying! If you have questions or need legal assistance with a youth justice issue, please contact us here.

What does Virginia law say about bullying? lists a number of resources highlighting what Virginia law protects. Virginia law defines bullying as “any aggressive and unwanted behavior that is intended to harm, intimidate, or humiliate the victim; involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the aggressor or aggressors and victim; and is repeated over time or causes severe emotional trauma.” This includes cyber bullying, but does not include “ordinary teasing, horseplay, argument, or peer conflict.” 

Teachers cannot be sued “unless such acts or omissions were the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct.” Virginia school districts must comply with the Virginia Department of Education’s Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Virginia’s Public Schools to maintain “a safe and supportive learning environment free from discrimination and harassment for all students.” School districts can set stronger protections, but must comply with the Model Policies as a baseline. 

Parents also have a right to review “any audio-visual materials that contain graphic sexual or violent content used in any anti-bullying or suicide prevention program.” Parents have the rights to receive written notice of their right to review such material, and the right to excuse their child from such a program. 

Schools are also required to establish character education programs which possess a number of principles including teaching around “fairness, including justice, consequences of bad behavior, principles of nondiscrimination, and freedom from prejudice.” Such programs may be included in classroom instruction but must be included in “school procedures and environment” and must “address the inappropriateness of bullying.” Further, each school district is required to make policies for student conduct. Schools are also required to make “programs to prevent violence and crime on school property and at school-sponsored events.” 

Notably, Virginia anti-bullying laws do not cover bullying that happens off-campus. Further, Virginia law does not require schools to provide safeguards or mental health support for students being bullied. 

What legal options do I have if my child is being bullied?

There is no federal law that prohibits bullying. For more information on what Virginia law says about bullying, please see the answer to question one of this FAQ. However, in some instances, discriminatory harassment based on “race, national origin, color, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), age, disability, or religion” is prohibited and requires schools to address the conduct. Schools are required to act when discriminatory harassment is: 

  • “Unwelcome and objectively offensive, such as derogatory language, intimidation, threats, physical contact, or physical violence; 
  • Creates a hostile environment at school. That is, it is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school; and is 
  • Based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion.” 

When you believe the school is not acting appropriately, you can contact the school district to file a grievance and/or contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Regardless, if you believe that the school does not know of the bullying or harassment, you may wish to report it to them. 

Under Virginia law, each school district is tasked with making policies for student conduct. What punishments and supports are offered depend on the district’s policy. Such policies are required to cover disciplinary procedures and standards for bullying, including how and when suspension and expulsion are used. At a minimum, schools must prohibit bullying in the student code of conduct, and principals must notify parents of the status of any bullying investigation for any student involved in alleged bullying within five school days of the allegation. However, schools can adopt stronger policies against bullying, so it is important to read your school’s code of conduct for what their policy says. Therefore, you should contact your school for more information about these policies. 

Outside of these areas, you can always contact a personal injury lawyer for claims such as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. If the bullying involves a crime—such as assault and battery—you always have the option to contact local law enforcement.

My child is being bullied about their race, national origin, and/or the language they speak. What are my rights and what does the school need to do?

The answer to this question depends on what your child is being bullied over. If the bullying is based on race, color, or national origin, and constitutes harassment, it is prohibited by federal law under Title VI. Your school district’s policies may also outline what bullying and harassment behavior is prohibited, what responses are in place, and other information. For more information on when schools are required to act based on discriminatory harassment, please see the response to question two on this FAQ. 

The Department of Education also has some additional FAQs about race and national origin discrimination, which are briefly summarized below. Importantly, Title VI applies to schools receiving federal funds. This covers all public schools but may not apply to some private schools.  

Other areas that Title VI protects as part of race, color, and national origin discrimination include: 

  • Unwelcome conduct based on a student’s actual or perceived race or national origin; 
  • Ethnic and ancestral slurs; 
  • Harassment around the ways someone looks, dresses, or speaks related to the student’s ethnicity or ancestry (e.g. skin color, religious attire, language spoken); 
  • Stereotypes based on perceived ancestral or ethnic characteristics; 
  • Denial of language services; and 
  • Inequal access to education services for English Language Learners. 

Title VI requires schools to respond to racial or national origin harassment that denies or limits a student’s ability to participate or benefit from their education. This often takes the form of creating a hostile environment. When the school knows or reasonably should know of the harassment, it must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate/determine what occurred. If the school determines there was harassment, it must “take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.” 

When you believe the school is not acting appropriately, you can contact the school district to file a grievance and/or contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate and frequently resolve disputes through requiring the school to “adopt effective anti-harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, address the incidents in question, and take other steps to restore a nondiscriminatory environment.” 

For English Language Learners, there are a number of requirements that schools must do as a preventative measure to discrimination. These include: 

  • “Identify[ing] EL students in a timely, valid, and reliable manner; 
  • Offer[ing] all EL students an educationally sound language assistance program; provide qualified staff and sufficient resources to instruct EL students; 
  • Ensur[ing] EL students have equitable access to school programs, activities, and services; 
  • Avoid[ing] unnecessary segregation of EL students from other students; 
  • Monitor[ing] the progress of EL students in learning English and doing grade-level classwork; remedy any academic deficits EL students incur while in a language assistance program; 
  • Mov[ing] EL students out of language assistance programs when they are proficient in English and monitor them to ensure they were not prematurely exited; and 
  • Evaluat[ing] the effectiveness of EL programs.”

My child is being bullied because of their gender and/or sexual orientation. What are my legal options and what does the school need to do?

Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has interpreted gender identity and sexual orientation as being protected by Title IX. Therefore, schools receiving federal funds have an obligation to protect LGBTQ+ students from harassment. Further, these protections extend beyond the LGBTQ+ community and applies to straight and cisgender students being harassed because of their sex or gender (e.g., a girl is consistently being called a misogynistic slur by her peers regardless of their harasser’s gender). Title IX prohibits harassment regardless of the gender of the harasser, meaning that the school must take action if they know a student is harassing another of the same gender (e.g., harassing another student for being gay or being perceived to be gay). School districts are required to have a Title IX coordinator who can answer questions and concerns regarding compliance with federal law, oversees complaints, and identifies patterns and systemic problems. You can quickly search for their information by searching “[your school district’s name] Title IX coordinator.” For example, here is the page for Albemarle County Public School’s Title IX coordinator.  

When you believe the school is not acting appropriately, you can contact the school district to file a grievance and/or contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate and frequently resolve disputes through requiring the school to “adopt effective anti-harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, address the incidents in question, and take other steps to restore a nondiscriminatory environment.” 

Every school district covered by Title IX—meaning schools receiving federal funds—is required to have procedures in place for complaints of sex discrimination. While every district’s policy may vary, this means the following obtained from the Department of Education’s website

  • Schools must adopt and provide complaint procedures which allow for the “prompt and equitable resolution of sex discrimination complaints;” 
  • Both you and the bully have the “adequate, reliable, and impartial investigation of complaints,” to present witnesses and evidence, and to appeal; 
  • The right to notification of the time frame of the investigation, notification of the outcome, and when to file an appeal; 
  • Determination of complaints will be based on more likely than not that it occurred (i.e., more than a “50% chance” it occurred) or using a clear and convincing evidence standard (i.e., between more than a 50% chance and a 99% chance)—whichever standard is used must be applied for both employees and students; 
  • You have the right to be notified, in writing, of the outcome of the complaint (importantly, privacy laws do not apply to sharing information between parties “when the sanction directly relates to the harassed student” (e.g., harasser is ordered to stay away from the harassed student)) and; 
  • Notification may include some voluntary and informal methods, such as mediation, for harassment outside of sexual assault. However, you have the right to terminate the informal process at any point and pursue the formal complaint process.

My child is being bullied because of their disability. What are my rights and what does the school need to do?

The U.S. Department of Education summarizes disability harassment as “intimidation or abusive behavior toward a student based on disability that creates a hostile environment by interfering with or denying a student’s participation in or receipt of benefits, services, or opportunities in the institution’s program.” This harassment can come in several forms including: 

  • Verbal acts; 
  • Name-calling; 
  • Nonverbal behavior; 
  • Graphic and written statements; and 
  • Physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating conduct. 

Further, this harassment can violate students’ rights under federal law when it is “sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates a hostile environment.” Schools must respond to disability harassment when they learn of it and must promptly investigate and respond accordingly. When schools know of disability harassment, they must take “immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.” If the school finds that the harassment created a hostile environment—meaning that it interfered or limited a student’s ability to receive an education—schools “must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the bullying.” 

Schools are also required to develop and publish a statement preventing disability discrimination and complaint procedures for disability harassment. The Department of Education provides the following ways for schools to prevent and eliminate disability harassment: 

  • “Creating a campus environment that is aware of disability concerns and sensitive to disability harassment; weaving these issues into the curriculum or programs outside the classroom; 
  • Encouraging parents, students, employees, and community members to discuss disability harassment and to report it when they become aware of it; 
  • Widely publicizing anti-harassment statements and procedures for handling discrimination complaints, because this information makes students and employees aware of what constitutes harassment, that such conduct is prohibited, that the institution will not tolerate such behavior, and that effective action, including disciplinary action, where appropriate, will be taken; 
  • Providing appropriate, up-to-date, and timely training for staff and students to recognize and handle potential harassment; 
  • Counseling both person(s) who have been harmed by harassment and person(s) who have been responsible for the harassment of others; 
  • Implementing monitoring programs to follow up on resolved issues of disability harassment; and 
  • Regularly assessing and, as appropriate, modifying existing disability harassment policies and procedures for addressing the issue, to ensure effectiveness.”

My child has an IEP or 504 plan. Does this play any role in bullying?

It depends. There are three major laws for students with disabilities: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). For a brief overview of the similarities and differences between the three acts, please see the information provided by the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Disability harassment can deny students a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Both the IDEA and 504 provide for FAPE. If the harassment limits your student’s ability to benefit from their education, the school is required to respond and could be in violation of federal law if it does not.  

Regardless of whether the bullying created a hostile environment, schools must also determine whether or not the bullying denied the student FAPE and would need to address that. The U.S. Department of Education recommends that schools should convene an IEP team meeting to determine whether the bullying resulted in the IEP no longer benefitting the harassed student. The U.S. Department of Education provides some examples of when schools should convene an IEP team including when a student has: 

  • A sudden decline in grades; 
  • Emotional outbursts; 
  • More frequent or intense behavioral issues; and 
  • An increase in missed classes or services. 

As a parent, you are a member of the IEP team. The term “parent” under the IDEA refers to: biological and adoptive parents, foster parents—if not in conflict with state law definitions—, guardians authorized to act as the parent or to make educational decisions, someone acting in place of a biological or adoptive parent (e.g., grandparent, stepparent, or another relative) who lives with the child or someone legally responsible for the child’s welfare, or a surrogate parent. 

Whether the school is required to act also depends on whether the school receives federal funds or does not. All public schools are subject to federal law, and private schools are generally only subject if they receive federal funds. The IDEA—the law that governs Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)—does not apply to private schools, but public schools that place students in private special education schools are responsible for the implementation of the IEP. However, the ADA prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation which includes private schools. All public schools are covered by 504 and the ADA. Most private schools are as well, but there are some that are not.  

When you believe the school is not acting appropriately, you can contact the school district to file a grievance and/or contact the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

I’m in a public school. Do those rights differ?

The short answer is no. All public schools are generally required to follow federal civil rights law. This means that public schools have an obligation to protect against race, color, national origin, sex, and disability discrimination and harassment. Virginia state law also applies to all public schools in the State. Still, specific anti-bullying policies will likely differ between school districts, so it is important to look at what your district’s policies are and what processes they offer. 

I’m at a private school. Do those rights differ?

Whether or not a private school required to act against sex discrimination depends on whether or not it receives federal funds. However, given the COVID relief funds the federal government provided to schools, it is likely that your school has received federal funds, but you should check with your school district. If your school receives federal funds, then federal civil rights statutes apply meaning that the school has an obligation to protect against race, color, national origin, sex, and disability discrimination and harassment. You should also check with your private school about what their bullying policies are. At the same time, private schools generally enjoy more freedom to dismiss students for bullying and harassment than public schools. Ultimately, the general answer is “it depends.” Please see each question on this FAQ above for a brief overview of when private schools may or may not be required to act on bullying. 

What can my school do to prevent bullying?

The Virginia Department of Education lists numerous ways schools can prevent bullying: 

  • Adopt a Multi-Tiered System of Supports. The Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports provides a framework that allows for prevention and interventions across all levels. Universal prevention programs and activities support all students, while selective interventions are chosen for those at risk of bullying involvement, and targeted interventions identified for students who are bullied and for those who bully. 
  • Implement Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Social emotional learning practices help build self and social awareness, foster relationship building, and guide effective problem solving. These practices support clear communication, recognizing and appreciating differences in others, and developing self-management skills. 
  • Have Clear Behavioral Expectations. Students need to be aware of and understand what the behavioral expectations are in all environments. Prosocial behavior should be praised. Students tend to feel safer and more supported in classrooms that are managed effectively. 
  • Supervise High Risk Areas. Identify the areas of the school that may be more prone to incidents of bullying and increase supervision in those areas. 
  • Establish Policies for Reporting and Responding to Incidents of Bullying. Policies should include training for school staff on bullying prevention and intervention. Students, staff, and families need to know how to report incidents of bullying and that all incidents will be addressed. 
  • Include Families and Community Members in Prevention Efforts. Help families understand effective ways to talk to their kids about bullying and that there are caring adults in the community to help. 
  • Collect Data on Incidents of Bullying. To identify the needs of the school community, periodically survey students anonymously to report incidents of bullying they have witnessed or experienced. By utilizing an anonymous reporting tool, schools can also collect needed data. 
  • Integrate Prevention Efforts. Prevention efforts that are long lasting and well-integrated address building protective factors in youth, creating effective communication, and establishing social emotional learning practices. These all work to create positive school climates that prevent bullying, suicide, and other student concerns rather than offering a program when a new problem emerges.”

What other resources are available to help my child with bullying?

  • Here are resources for how to tell if your child is being bullied and some action steps you can take. 
  • Here are some ideas for how to document when your child is being bullied. 
  • Here is an example sample letter to send to schools for harassment generally. 
  • Here are example letters to send to schools for students with 504 plans or an IEP
  • Here is a resource on how to write anti-bullying provisions into IEPs.  
  • Here are some tips from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office for parents and students regarding bullying. 
  • Here are some helplines for students experiencing bullying.
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