Bullies are the bad actors, but the district can and should prevent bullying
A NJ school district will pay a $9m settlement to parents whose daughter was relentlessly bullied at school, leading to her suicide
12-year-old Mallory Grossman was a typical pre-teen. She loved gymnastics, cheerleading, arts and crafts, and being outdoors. She had a devoted family and everything to look forward to.
Except, there was one problem. Mallory was being bullied relentlessly and mercilessly at her New Jersey middle school. For months, she received cruel messages from other students, kids refused to allow her to eat at their lunch table, and classmates would aggressively kick her chair or call her names.
Mallory was devastated and suffering, and her parents tried to help. Dianne and Seth Grossman contacted school officials, but were told not to file a complaint with the district under the New Jersey anti-bullying statute. The school officials were unhelpful, even forcing Mallory and her bullies to hug each other at one point.
Why was Mallory bullied? Bullying is never the victim’s fault. In Mallory’s case, her mother believes that the children were envious of Mallory’s gymnastics achievements, and that they perceived her as a “privileged rich girl” even though the family didn’t view themselves as wealthy.
One day in June 2017, the Grossmans and Mallory had a meeting with school officials. The school administrators suggested that Mallory should go home for the rest of that school day because she was “not safe” at school. Hours later, Mallory died by suicide at her home.
Wrongful death lawsuit against Rockaway Township School District
Mallory’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school district for Mallory’s wrongful death.
A wrongful death claim is a civil action brought by the surviving family members of someone who died prematurely because of the negligent actions of another.
The lawsuit detailed actions by the bullies, who were not named in the suit. It also claimed that the school failed to offer solutions or listen to the Grossmans’ concerns about the bullying behavior. In short, the school district had a legal obligation to protect Mallory by preventing bullying and it did not meet its duty.
The lawsuit named the school district, along with its superintendent, the town, the Board of Education, the school principal, the vice principal, a guidance counselor and the anti-bullying coordinator as defendants, along with unnamed teachers, lunch aides, librarians and faculty.
Constant lunchtime bullying meant that school officials suggested that Mallory eat lunch in the guidance office. Doing so increased her sense of social isolation, according to the lawsuit.
When Mallory’s mom spoke with school officials about the problems, they put the burden on Mallory to resolve the conflicts, rather than placing any consequences on the bullies. The school guidance counselor met with Mallory and her parents several times during the year but did not handle their complaints.
After their final meeting with the school principal, he offered Mallory a single poker chip. He told her to write her initials and the date on the chip and asked her if she is “all in” for working on the conflicts with the bullies. According to Mallory’s parents, this felt like the ultimate humiliation. And then hours later, she’d taken her own life.
Similar bullying-related lawsuits nationwide
The Grossmans’ $9.1 million verdict in a bullying lawsuit was the highest in the country for a case of its kind, but there have been others.
In the same county where Mallory lived, there was an earlier lawsuit against a school district for the suicide death of a teenager in 2014. That lawsuit settled for $625,000. There was another lawsuit in California regarding a 13-year-old who killed herself after being bullied, and her family also sued the school district for negligence. In another lawsuit, a New Jersey teen settled with her school district after claiming that intense physical bullying led her to have to transfer to a private school. Yet another New Jersey lawsuit involved a teenager who was bullied because of his sexual orientation. That case settled for $68,000.
What’s next for bullying-related lawsuits?
Bullying in school has happened since the beginning of time. Even though we live in an age of heightened awareness, and some schools claim to take active measures against bullying and have zero-tolerance bullying policies, it still happens. It happens on social media, it happens in group chats, and it happens on school buses and in cafeterias and classrooms—but it doesn’t always get reported or handled.
Mallory’s family started a foundation in her memory called Mallory’s Army, which aims to raise awareness and provide resources for students and families who are affected by a bullying atmosphere.
But their lawsuit will likely leave a more enduring legacy. It sets precedent for large settlements to families of children who took their own lives as a result of being bullied. It isn’t easy to prove that a school’s negligence was the direct cause of the death by suicide, but it’s possible. If you believe that your child’s death by suicide was caused by their school’s negligently failing to protect them or take appropriate safety measures against bullying, you can contact a personal injury lawyer for guidance.