Should schools be required to tell parents about bullying?

ALBANY, N.Y. — Richard and Christine Taras knew their soft-spoken son had been picked on by a school bus bully. But they were unaware of the more extensive torment Jacobe endured in school hallways until the day the 12-year-old middle schooler killed himself with his father’s shotgun.

“Dear Mom and Dad, I’m sorry but I can not live anymore,” Jacobe wrote on a sheet of lined notebook paper in 2015. “I just can’t deal with all the bullies, being called gay … being told to go kill myself. I’m also done with being pushed, punched, tripped.” He signed off, “I LOVE YOU.”

“We had no idea of the extent or the seriousness of what was going on,” Richard Taras said. “My son didn’t tell me and the school didn’t pass along the information they had.”

Nearly three years later, Richard and Christine Taras of Moreau, 40 miles north of Albany, are pushing for a New York law that would require schools to notify parents if their child is being bullied. Known as “Jacobe’s Law,” the measure unanimously passed the state Senate last week but has an uncertain fate in the Assembly.

At least eight states currently have laws requiring that schools notify parents when their child is being bullied or is bullying other kids. But such policies have come under attack from LGBT advocates who argue that schools officials could inadvertently be put in the position of outing gay, lesbian or transgender pupils to their parents. And such students may avoid reporting bullying to officials for fear of having their parents told.

“While it’s important for parents to be aware if their children are being bullied in school, it’s also imperative to remember that LGBTQ students may not be out to their family or may not have supportive families,” said Ikaika Regidor, director of education and youth programs for GLSEN, a national organization focused on safe schools for LGBTQ students.

Civil rights groups say it is a violation of students’ privacy rights when authorities disclose their sexual orientation to their parents.

In 2001, a successful wrongful death lawsuit was filed after a Pennsylvania high school football player committed suicide when police officers threatened to tell his family he was gay. A federal court in Philadelphia ruled that the U.S. Constitution prohibits governments from delving into the sexual orientation of Americans.

Those concerns have at least one state rethinking its law.

In New Jersey, known for having some of the strictest anti-bullying statutes in the nation, state education department officials have suggested stepping back from automatic notification and instead requiring schools to consider incidents on a case-by-case basis before contacting parents.

“There are laws that restrict what school officials can tell a parent about anything the official has discovered about the student’s sexual orientation or gender identification,” said Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Where notification might lead into that conversation puts the official into a very difficult spot. We just need to make sure laws are reconciled.”