The City Law Officers’ Essay

In this age of increasing litigation, should victims of bullying in schools be permitted to hold their aggressors to account and ultimately prosecute them?

Essay by Gabriella Brantley, Head Girl, U6th IB pupil. 


Often, fundamental values seemingly possessed by all, values which inform and constitute the law under which societies fall subservient, form the basis for riveting debate. In this age of social media and with the constant spectre of mass shootings witnessed, bullying in our schools is one such matter that has garnered increased discussion. Harassment, as it relates to English law, describes behaviour which is “intended to cause distress”[1], falling under the Equality Act of 2010 as a “form of discrimination”[2]. It should then follow that laws necessitate the succour of those whom fall most vulnerable – school-aged children. Our future generation constantly falls victim to malicious acts of bullying, which stagnates the ponds of mental welfare, ponds which, at such a malleable age, have not begun to flourish. Due to the advent of social media, new avenues of harassment and bullying have floated to the surface, developing bacteria known commonly as Cyberbullying. As bullying has evolved to further suppress the progress of youth, so too does the law have a responsibility to adapt, to properly safeguard the wellbeing of our children.

At the 2014 Foundation’s Childhood Trauma Conference, Dr. Allen Schore of the Clinical Faculty of Psychiatry commented that, “The path of neuronal development is malleable – not resilient. Children being resilient to trauma is a fallacy”[3]. The Australian Childhood Foundation, in response stated, “Recognizing critical time frames in childhood and adolescence, including assisting children and young people as early as possible, both in the life of the child and the life of the problem is a core part of any child-centered approach”[4]. Isn’t the law then the “worker” of our children, so to foster and nurture an intervention? I delve further. The article continues, “If children do not experience certain relational and environmental actions and reactions, they can suffer lasting cognitive or sensory limitations as a result. When these are missing, research has shown an increase in neuro-chemical changes which foster anxiety, depression and problems with anger management.” [5] Aren’t our schools safe havens for our youth, where in any dimension of anti-social behaviour is not tolerated?

The Department of Education in their 2017 study claims, “When there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm’ a bullying incident should be addressed as a child protection concern under the Children Act 1989. In such a case, the school staff should report their concerns to their local authority children’s social care.” [6] It must duly be noted that under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Communications Act 2003, and the Malicious Communications Act 1988, forms of harassment can be criminal offences. However, often the laws that constitute this, and the prevention for these under sections 496 and 497 of the 1996 Education Act, fall subject to lack of enforcement. The case of fifteen-year-old, Freeman High School shooter, Caleb Sharpe mirrors this.

Libby Kamrowski, in response to this Washington shooting in September 2017 stated that Sharpe had “wanted to teach his classmates a lesson about bullying.”[7] It continued that “the suspect said he had been picked on by the slain boy”. [8] What is truly striking is that the article proceeds to recount Sharpe’s constant communication with his school counsellor about his troubling thoughts. This, unfortunately, resulted in three being wounded and his aggressor ultimately killed. Although the United Kingdom passed a law regarding “repeated harassment or intimidation, for example name calling and threats” [9] being a matter that “should be reported to the police,”[10] this law continues to be ignored. Furthermore, despite the fact that Sharpe was unauthorised to prosecute his aggressor, after several months within the court, he was finally charged with “one count of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder and 51 counts of second-degree assault.” [11] Clearly, it was not seen as a priority to retrieve justice for Sharpe, but rather, when he felt as though his protection was in his own hands, prosecution was seen as necessary. Psychologist Izzy Kalman reiterated this as she suggests “school shooters don’t commit mass shootings to bully people; they commit them because they feel victimized and want to seek revenge or right a wrong” [12]. If Sharpe had been given the opportunity to prosecute rather than “seeking revenge”, the outcome of this case may have been significantly different. Thus, these acts of harassment must be taken to the level of prosecution, lest it be allowed to fester and develop into drastically higher percentages of mass shootings and eventually, a state of anarchy.

As a direct result of an increase in modernization, resulting in new mediums of bullying, the law has obligations to adapt accordingly. With respect to law specifically, some countries have electronic crimes legislation which captures acts of cyberbullying. For example, the Malicious Communications Act 1988 (MCA) of the British Parliament makes it illegal to ‘send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety’. It also applies to electronic communications” [13]. This “MCA” was successfully used occasionally in litigation, one such case being in the case of DPP v Connolly, in which an anti-abortion campaigner was prosecuted after sending obscene images of fetuses to pharmacists selling contraceptive pills. Nonetheless, more must be done within the premises of such legislation, as multiple acts of bullying happen on social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, especially relating to school children.

Under the United Kingdom Defamation Act of 2013 Section 1, a statement posted online is illegal if  “its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.” [14] Texas student Brandy Vela eventually lost her life, as a result.          According to CBS Houston, Vela had been “receiving abusive text messages for months from bullies.” [15] As a result, the 18-year-old was led to “shoot herself in the chest.” [16] What evokes more “serious harm” than death? The articles continued that the family had “reported the bullying to the Texas City school district and several law enforcement agencies,”[17] to no avail. Perhaps if the police had enforced this law written within this act, Vela may have seen an alternative to her demise. In fact, the Department of Education clearly states that if a  member of staff has reasonable ground to suspect a device is being used wrongly, they must “give the device to the police as soon as it is reasonably practicable.” [18] However, if the police who are burdened with the task of enforcing the law do not do this, what becomes of the victims of this cycle of modern harassment?

Let us now examine the case of thirteen year old Megan Meier, who, “was an eighth-grade student at a middle school in Missouri who befriended what she thought was a 16- year-old male peer named Josh Evans.” [19] However, “Josh” turned out to be an impersonator on The imposter built a relationship with Megan only to tear it apart with an array of malicious messages on the social networking site. This ultimately led Megan, who already suffered from a lack of self-confidence and mild depression, to commit suicide by hanging herself in her bedroom. Hester’s article continues “The struggle for school officials to maintain a balance between preserving student rights of free speech and expression while protecting student safety and the learning environment has become more complex and difficult with the rise of cyberbullying. [20]

Although the rate of cyberbullying has reportedly increased, that increase is not reflected in a 2008-2009 U.S. Department of Education report, which states that only “40 cyberbullying cases out of 60,000 disciplinary cases resulted in suspension or expulsion. This figure is considered an underestimation of the actual problem existing in public schools.” [21] In other words, only 0.067% of cases involving school children being harassed online were taken to a higher form of discipline. This then further cements the idea that indeed not enough is being done to protect our youth from harassment, through the law. If we were more proactive and consistent in our approach to this matter, legally and otherwise, it may potentially reduce the high percentage of cyber bullies online today.

Instead, we find ourselves in a situation where many children feel optionless and unsafe. In addition, as society modifies into a state of technological advances, which open doors for additional acts of bullying, so too must our laws evolve in order to, as Lord Bingham succinctly put it “afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights.”[22] It is only just therefore that victims of bullying in schools be permitted to hold their aggressors to account and ultimately prosecute them, for such acts constitute an injustice to grave and if left unchecked will only continue to fester into an untreatable sore.


[1]  Rights of Women, 2016

[2] Citizens Advice , 2018

[3]  Australian Childhood Foundation, 2015

[4]  IBID

[5] IBID

[6] Department for Education, 2017

[7] Kamrowski, 2017

[8] IBID

[9] Citizens Advice , 2018

[10] GOV.UK, 2018

[11] The Spokesman-Review, 2018

[12] Kelly, 2018

[13] Wikipedia, 2017

[14], 2013

[15] CBS News, 2016

[16] IBID

[17] IBID

[18] Department for Education, 2017

[19] Hester, 2012

[20] IBID

[21] IBID

[22] Human Rights News, Views & Info, 2018

Australian Childhood Foundation, 2015. What does it mean to be Child Centred? Part 2. Canberra : Online Professional Community Manager.
CBS News, 2016. Cyberbullying pushed Texas teen to commit suicide, family says. [Online]
[Accessed 19 September 2018].
Citizens Advice , 2018. Harassment. London: National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.
Department for Education, 2017. Preventing and tackling bullying. London: The National Archives.
GOV.UK, 2018. Bullying at school. [Online]
[Accessed 19 September 2018].
Hester, W. P., 2012. CYBERBULLYING INTERVENTION, Tuscaloosa : Department of Educational Leadership, Policy, and Technology Studies in the Graduate School of The University of Alabama.
Human Rights News, Views & Info, 2018. LORD BINGHAM PROTECTION OF RIGHTS. [Online]
[Accessed 19 September 2018].
Kamrowski, L., 2017. Student accused in Washington school shooting blamed ‘bullying’. [Online]
[Accessed 19 09 2018].
Kelly, M., 2018. Bullying & School Shootings: Statistics & Facts. [Online]
[Accessed 19 September 2018]., 2013. Defamation Act 2013. [Online]
[Accessed 19 September 2018].
Rights of Women, 2016. Harrassment and the Law. London: Ministry of Justice .
The Spokesman-Review , 2018. Hearing to decide if alleged Freeman High School shooter will be tried as adult pushed to November. [Online]
[Accessed 19 September 2018].
Wikipedia, 2017. Malicious Communications Act 1988. [Online]
[Accessed 19 September 2018].
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