When Christian Stanfield couldn't get officials at his Pennsylvania school 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, which is near Pittsburgh, how bad it was. She figured school officials would finally have to do something.
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.
"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.
While Pennsylvania is one of a few states that does requires both parties to know when a conversation is being recorded, Volokh notes that the state supreme court decided in 1998 that this requirement could only hold where there was a "justifiable expectation of privacy."
"If you are talking to one other person, especially in a secluded place, the statute might apply," Volokh said. "But in classroom with a teacher and classmates all around, it's hard to see how you can see a reasonable expectation of privacy."
Dropping the charges against Stanfield to a disorderly conduct misdemeanor didn't really improve the district's case, Volokh added.
State law defines disorderly conduct as "engaging in fighting, threatening or violent behavior, making unreasonable noise, using obscene language or gestures, or creating a physically hazardous condition that serves no legitimate purpose."
Not a single one of these criterion applies to the case, Volokh noted. "I have a feeling that given all this coverage, someone will volunteer to work on this guy's appeal," Volokh said in an interview, speaking before the charges were dropped.
"But you need a local lawyer. Nor do I think it would be difficult case. Should be an open and shut matter."
Using his Washington Post megaphone, where he co-authors a blog with several other law professors, Volokh would later write twice on the matter.
Not done yet
The case was open and shut enough that the District Attorney's Office, in dropping the charges on April 16, also aggressively distanced itself from the affair. The statement released by the DA stated, "No one in our office who is authorized to give advice on wiretap issues or school conduct issues was ever contacted in this matter. We have made multiple attempts to contact the officer who wrote the citation and the results have been unsuccessful."
And this is where the school would very much like the matter end, but Steele does not sound like someone who is ready to do that. He is currently weighing options on a civil lawsuit. The school, he argues, had long since been put on notice about the bullying, and had failed to make any effort to remedy it.
Steele said that if his clients sue, and he expects they will, they will be aiming not for monetary damages but for "injunctive relief," which means they want the court to order the school district to change its policies and practices. "We've heard outcry from other families," Steele said.
"We are more focused on correcting the culture. The closed-door policy will have to change."
For his part, Christian Stanfield seems to have risen to the challenge. Initially frightened and alone, Steele said, "the national news coverage has given him strength and helped him realize that he did nothing wrong."