In response to cruel cyberbullying that has left their 16-year-old daughter feeling humiliated and unable to sleep, a pair of fed-up parents are striking back at the offending classmates in a unique and public way: They're suing all seven of the teens for libel and all of their parents for negligence.
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“We’re being superaggressive about it, because this behavior really needs to stop,” Tej Paranjpe, the Houston-based attorney for parents Reymundo Esquivel and Shellie Tingle-Esquivel, tells Yahoo Shine. “It’s really an issue of principle.”
Although the Esquivels’ daughter (who is not being named to protect her privacy) has been getting bullied in person by several fellow students at Klein High School in Klein, Texas, for about a year now, the situation came to a head in recent weeks, according to her mother. That’s when the girl’s photo appeared, along with those of many others (some of whom were topless), on a student-made Instagram page called “2014 Klein Hoes,” which had picked up almost 900 followers during the several weeks it was live.
On Instagram, her daughter's photo in particular, Tingle-Esquivel tells Yahoo Shine, became the target of many “vulgarities” and “explicit sexual comments,” which left the teen “crying and really upset — almost hysterical.” She adds that the whole experience “has affected [her daughter] tremendously,” but she also notes that she's “really impressed and proud” that the girl had the gumption to tell her parents in the first place.
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The situation has inspired Tingle-Esquivel to act on behalf of her daughter, as well as the other girls on the Instagram page, which was “really defaming the character of these kids.” She retained Paranjpe, who quickly got the page taken down with restraining orders against each of the seven students involved in its making. And now they're preparing to file the lawsuits, for the sole purpose of stopping all cyberbullying activity and “raising public awareness,” Tingle-Esquivel says. “It’s to let kids know that this is not acceptable.” If they do pursue monetary damages, she adds, any funds will be donated to an antibullying organization.
The approach is certainly an unusual one, according to Dr. Justin Patchin, criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the national Cyberbullying Research Center. “What’s more common is parents suing the school for failing to respond appropriately,” he tells Yahoo Shine. That happened last year in Tennessee, when a family sued its school district for $1.1 million for not doing enough to protect its eighth-grade son from cyberbullying, which included a death threat.
Though Klein High School administrators have been “very supportive” about their complaints, Tingle-Esquivel says, the school has not gone far enough. School officials moved several of the offending students out of her daughter’s classes and into others, for example, but, she says they didn't bother to get the Instagram page taken down despite having known about it.
Klein High School principal Larry Whitehead did not respond to requests for comment from Yahoo Shine.
Lawsuits that go after cyberbullies, Patchin notes, are rare because it can be challenging to prove and put a price tag on the harm that ensues from the harassment. They can also be expensive. So instead, he suggests, “parents should work with schools to minimize the damage. The targets usually know who’s behind it, and the teens often think it’s just a joke — they don’t realize the harm that they’re causing.” Patchin also stresses the importance of schools' creating environments that value compassion and respect in an effort to prevent the cyberbullying in the first place.
As for the expense involved in the Texas lawsuit, Tingle-Esquivel says, she’s more concerned about potentially saving the life of a student who may feel suicidal over cyberbullying. “Can you put a price tag on someone’s life?” she asks. “No, you cannot.”
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