What Qualifies as Student Harassment or Bullying?

Student harassment and bullying are very real and often overlooked problems among children. It can happen to anyone in any environment, and it doesn’t always take the shape of physical violence. In fact, it’s more common for bullies to be psychological perpetrators who use words and actions to put others down or even hurt them emotionally.

What qualifies as student harassment or bullying? It’s a question many parents and schools grapple with. Schools are required to have policies about how they respond to reported bullying incidents, but sometimes the line between teasing and bullying is unclear.

What Are the Types of Harassment?

The most common types of harassment in schools are bullying, discriminatory harassment, sexual harassment, and physical harassment.


Bullying, sometimes referred to as “personal harassment,” is repeated, aggressive behavior that is intended to hurt another student physically, mentally, or emotionally. It can include offensive jokes or comments, intentional humiliation, criticism, and intimidation.

Discriminatory Harassment

If harassment is based on a student’s color, race, national origin, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability, it is considered discriminatory harassment. Such bullying or harassment could include racial, homophobic, or transphobic slurs, anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant comments, or taunting students about their nationality or ethnicity.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with a student’s right to receive an education. Sexual harassment can include a broad range of behavior, including inappropriate comments, obscene gestures, unwanted physical contact, and sexual assault. 

Physical Harassment

Physical harassment involves physical attacks or threats of violence perpetrated against a student. Some examples of physical harassment include making threats, intimidation, punching, shoving, or kicking.

Can You Sue a School for Harassment?

As a government agency, public school districts typically can’t be sued because of what is known as “sovereign immunity,” which means that the government and government agencies are exempt from lawsuits. However, a parent or family may still  sue under very limited circumstances.

While the exact requirements to file a lawsuit against a school will differ among school districts, you may be able to sue a school for harassment in some situations.


The legal theory of negligence allows you to sue when someone fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm to another. However, schools usually can only be sued for “gross negligence,” which is a more serious violation than ordinary negligence. Rather than simply acting carelessly, the school must have shown extreme indifference to or reckless disregard for the safety of others in its actions to commit gross negligence.

A school could be grossly negligent in preventing bullying or other harassment in many ways, such as:

  • Failing to establish anti-harassment policies
  • Failing to train employees to stop harassment
  • Ignoring complaints of harassment
  • Permitting ongoing harassing behaviors 
  • Negligent supervision of students
  • Negligent hiring (if the harassment was committed by a teacher or other staff member)


Under federal law, your child must be protected from specific kinds of discrimination at a public school. For instance, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination based on a child’s race, color, or national origin, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bans discrimination based on a child’s sex, and the Americans with Disabilities Act outlaws discrimination based on a child’s disability. If your child has been the victim of discriminatory harassment in school, you may have a cause of action against the school.

Sexual Misconduct

Sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct are considered to be types of sex discrimination. You have a better chance of establishing a case against a school when the sexual misconduct was committed by a teacher or another school employee. However, in certain circumstances, you can also sue a school for sexual harassment committed by another student.

When Should I Contact an Education Attorney?

If your child’s school is refusing to address issues of student harassment or bullying, you should contact an education attorney immediately. School is supposed to be a safe place for students, and if your child is suffering at the hands of harassers or bullies, an accomplished lawyer can help protect them. Because of the limited circumstances in which you can sue a school, the process is complex and challenging. However, with a skilled education attorney on your team, you have a much greater chance of resolving the problem.

About EducationAttorney.com & RMO Lawyers

RMO LLP serves clients in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Orange County, and communities throughout California. Our founder, Scott E. Rahn has been named “Top 100 – Trust and Estate Litigation” by SuperLawyers, Trusts and Estates Litigator of the Year, and Best Lawyers in America for Litigation – Trusts and Estates.