Bullying has become a disturbing trend, and state legislatures are responding with increasingly stricter anti-bullying laws, such as "Phoebe's Law" in Massachusetts, named for a 15-year-old girl who killed herself after being bullied. These changes in the law may make parents wonder about their legal responsibilities for their children's behavior—and rightfully so.
What follows is a brief guide to parents' legal responsibilities regarding bullying.
Look to State Law
Both tort and criminal law are governed by states, so you must look to your own state's legislation to determine your legal responsibilities regarding your children's behavior. State laws vary greatly, but according to Love Our Children USA, 47 states do have some kind of parental liability law. In those states, parents may be held responsible for negligent or intentional acts as well as for crimes of their children.
Generally, parents may be responsible for the behavior of their "minor" children—the definition of which also varies by state—although liability usually does not attach until the child is between the ages of eight and 10.
In civil suits against parents, some states place limits on damages, but several don't. In particular, claims have been brought against parents of alleged bullies based on claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress under homeowner's insurance policies; negligent supervision is another possible cause of action.
But parental responsibility may extend even beyond monetary damages and into criminal liability, depending on how far the bullying has gone. In California, for example, it is a crime for parents to fail to "exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control" over their children, and one of the possible penalties is incarceration.
Across the country, parents may also be held responsible for paying juvenile court fees and even performing community service themselves when their children commit crimes or other delinquent acts.
The best way for you to avoid any kind of liability for your child's actions is to talk to them about the dangers of bullying and be available to your children to discuss such issues. Love Our Children USA provides advice on What Parents Can Do to Stop Bullies.
For information about specific anti-bullying laws in your state, see BullyPolice.org.