Throughout the country, there have been great efforts to end bullying. School districts throughout North Carolina have started anti-bullying campaigns and initiatives. While all of these efforts are greatly impacting how bullying is perceived and how it’s handled, bullying unfortunately is still a problem for some students. How does juvenile court respond when a child that has been bullied reacts and fights back? In my short time as juvenile defender, I have already come across many cases where students have reached their last straw. Should children who have been a victim of bullying automatically be diverted? Should they be placed on probation for 12 months when they were the victim?
About six months into my practice as a juvenile defender, I was assigned a case where my client told me she had been bullied. She was charged with simple assault for fighting with another girl in her middle school. My client was very straight forward with me. She told me that she did hit the other girl. It wasn’t self-defense. She was the person who threw the first punch. She also told me that this other girl had been bullying her for months. This girl had a group of friends that would harass my client. This other girl had even followed my client home on several occasions threatening her. My client was afraid of going to school. While teachers at the school were monitoring the situation, my client was afraid that one of the girls’ friends would do something to her. This case was interesting because both children were charged with simple assault. Because they were at the same school, both of the cases were scheduled on the same day. One the day of court, I even witnessed the other girl and her friends making harassing statements to my client and her family outside of the courtroom.
After going through the facts and the discovery in this case, it was definitely clear that my client assaulted the other student. However, I felt uncomfortable having her admit to this charge when she was feeling victimized. I didn’t think probation would serve the purpose of juvenile court. It may have taught her not to hit another student, but it wouldn’t necessarily prevent her from facing similar situations in the future. In this case, she had done everything asked of her. She contacted school officials, spoke to a guidance counselor, and told her parents. The court counselor who was supervising my client had positive things to say about her and how she was doing in school. We spoke with district attorney and arranged an informal deferred prosecution for my client. We continued the case for about three months. During that period, she successfully met established conditions and the charges were dismissed.
I was really happy with the result in this case. While I do wish she didn’t have to be supervised at all, I was happy that my client didn’t have admit to a charge that was result of bullying. I know that informal deferred prosecutions aren’t options for every child or in every jurisdiction. If the client isn’t immediately diverted by the Department of Juvenile Justice, what are the other options? I have had other cases where deferred prosecution wasn’t an option for my client because he or she had other issues and concerns. In those cases, mentioning bullying and how my client responded to it was helpful in disposition.
The initiatives to end bullying are extremely beneficial and have made remarkable progress in the school system. I do think that while bullying still exists, there is a challenge for juvenile defenders and the juvenile justice system to address how the court deals with juveniles who are also victims of bullying.
Yolanda Fair is an Assistant Public Defender with the Buncombe County Public Defender’s Office in Asheville.