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Turning the table on bullies: Student fights back with recordings

Published: Sunday, April 27 2014 8:30 p.m. MDT

A shy, quiet 15-year-old became a national celebrity when he was charged with disorderly conduct after recording abuse from bullies. The county dropped the charges last week, but the family's attorney says that the matter will not end here.

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When Christian Stanfield couldn’t get the school officials to protect him, when even his mom expressed skepticism about the severity of the bullying, he turned to his iPad.

On Feb. 11, the 15-year-old shy and quiet boy recorded classmates taunting him in crude, sexual language so vile that his lawyer would later hesitate to share it with reporters. His mom, Shea Love, was stunned. She transcribed the recording and sent him to school with the audio to show the principal at South Fayette High School how bad it was. She figured school officials would finally have to do something.

They did.

Principal Scott Milburn called the learning-disabled boy a criminal and pressured him into erasing the recording. He called in the police, and Lt. Robert Kurta of South Fayette Township Police interrogated the boy as the associate principal and the dean of students looked on.

At first, Stanfield was threatened with a felony wiretapping charge. In the end, he was charged with “disorderly conduct,” and he was convicted by a judge in court and ordered to pay a $25 fine.

“This was the district’s response to his cry for help,” says Jonathan Steele, a local attorney who represents disabled kids. Steele appealed the conviction, and under local legal and national media pressure, all charges were dropped on April 16.

Although the charges were dropped, serious damage had already been done to Stanfield, Steele says. A boy who had never missed a day of school and never had even gone home early was now fearful.

He feels he has no adult support at school, and the idea of school now causes severe stress, including stomach pains. “With all the abuse Christian got from his classmates, he never reacted like this,” Steele said.

Steele said he has been contacted by the American Civil Liberties Union, and he is now weighing the options for civil litigation. The school he says, has failed to create a safe environment and has long ignored and suppressed such concerns.

After the story broke, Steele said, other parents came forward with similar stories. Meanwhile, the case has implications for bullied children and their parents, as well as for school administrators.

Both sides have to figure out how ubiquitous technology may, for better and worse, unsettle the schoolyard and classroom.

Bullying law

“It’s very hard for outsiders to know what goes on in school all day,” Steele said. “They tend to be very closed off. Recordings like this give us a window, which is why the school administrators here were so quick to pressure him to delete the recording.”

Bullying law is still just developing, Steele said, but its trajectory so far closely tracks sexual harassment and discrimination law. One core element of this legal space, he added, is that an institution becomes liable when it is aware of a hostile environment and does nothing to remedy it.

“Districts have an obligation to act once they have been put on notice about bullying,” Steele said. In this case, he argues, school administrators had long notice, had received many complaints including emails from various parents, and had done nothing.

The South Fayette Township School District declined to comment.

A weak case

The wiretapping charge was dubious from the outset, says Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and Washington Post civil liberties blogger.

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