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Cover Story
Pushing Back

Insurers seek to reduce claims by funding an anti-bullying app that allows anonymous reporting.
  • Meg Green
  • August 2018
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Key Points

A Troubling Problem: Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, all 50 states have adopted anti-bullying laws. Schools, and the insurers that cover them, have paid millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts to families whose children were injured or died as a result of bullying.

There’s an App for That: An app that allows students to report bullying incidents anonymously has attracted interest from insurers. Impressed with the app’s ability to help prevent claims, insurers have been paying for it to be placed in schools and municipalities as a risk management tool.

Gaining Ground: The app, currently in 2,000 schools globally, allows administrators to get involved sooner, while creating a paper trail that reduces the claims stream. Bullying can result in general liability and errors and omissions claims.

Cyberbullying.

Todd Schobel will always remember the October day in 2012, when he first heard the term.

Driving to his home in Oldwick, N.J., he heard a radio report of how Amanda Todd, a Canadian teenager, had committed suicide after being cyber bullied for two years. Before she killed herself, she had posted a black-and-white YouTube video—which went viral after her death—telling her story through handwritten flash cards.

Amanda Todd was bullied and harassed online and in person. She had switched schools several times in an attempt to get a fresh start, but nasty comments followed her via social media. The cruel comments followed her after school hours, and into new towns. She saw no escape, no reprieve.

After she attempted to kill herself by drinking bleach, some classmates suggested she try again—and use a different brand.

“I'm stuck … what's left of me now … nothing stops,” Amanda wrote. “I have nobody … I need someone. My name is Amanda Todd.” She posted the video in September 2012, and committed suicide a month later. “It was shocking. It brought you to tears,” Schobel said. “I envisioned this 14-year-old and what she was going through. What I saw was a child, cringing in the corner, saying 'What do I do? I just want this to stop.' It's horrifying what she went through.”

Schobel made the STOPit app, which allows students to report bullying incidents anonymously.

“I wanted to make the app simple, fast and powerful,” Schobel said. “It doesn't ask a lot of questions. It promotes acts of kindness. When someone sees something taking place, something that's not right—drug abuse, self-harm, a weapon being brought to school … it empowers students to share what they know, in real time, to administrators. It gives administrators a window into that world.”

Insurers, impressed with the app's ability to help prevent claims, have been paying for it to be placed in schools and municipalities as a risk management tool.

The app is currently in 2,000 schools globally, Schobel said, saying the next step is expansion into municipalities and corporations.

Sticks and Stones

Older generations grew up with the proverb: Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

That adage doesn't hold true today, as bullying is linked to both suicides and homicides—and lawsuits and insurance claims.

Bullying has become a risk for insurers, said Scott Tennant, the contract administrator for the School Pool for Excess Liability Limits Joint Insurance Fund, which insures 76 public school districts in New Jersey.

Schools across the nation are subject to laws and regulations requiring them to provide a safe place for students. Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, in which two teen shooters murdered 13 people and wounded another 21, all 50 states have adapted anti-bullying laws.

Schools are liable under those laws, and they, and the insurers who cover them, have paid millions of dollars in settlements and verdicts to families whose children were injured or died as the result of bullying.

“We see a whole array, different types of legal theories brought, and most litigants try to do the shotgun approach and bring as many claims as possible,” said Boston attorney John J. Cloherty III with Pierce Davis & Perritano.

Federal claims can include civil rights violations of substantive due process, violations or equal protection, statutory discrimination claims, or claims brought under the Individuals with Disability in Education Act, the IDEA, Cloherty said in an A.M. Best podcast.

“The state laws for bullying prevention may or may not be actionable in themselves,” Cloherty said. “Negligence claims like negligent supervision, negligent hiring, and negligent infliction of emotional distress may also be filed.”

Many verdicts and settlements have not been made public, but consider the $4.5 million settlement for the Anchorage School District after a 14-year-old attempted to hang himself and suffered irreversible brain damage. Some of the child's classmates had regularly harassed him, assaulted him in the bathroom, knocked his books out of his hands and threw his clarinet in the trash, according to the lawsuit.

Dozens of lawsuits across the country tell similar stories. A bullied child, pushed too far, attempts suicide. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens, about 4,400 a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than other children, according to studies by Yale University.

Beyond the tragedy of a single child ending her own life, some believe bullying victims pushed too far have been responsible for school shootings in the United States. School shootings leave behind broken lives and many unanswered questions.

While social scientists continue to search for the motivation behind school shootings, students are twice as likely to bring a weapon to school if they've been bullied, according to a Centers for Disease Control's 2011 Youth Risk Surveillance System Survey.

“Eighty percent of kids who bring a weapon to school have been bullied,” Schobel said. “I'm not saying if you cure bullying you cure school violence, but it's a good place to start.”

Todd Schobel, STOPit App Developer

Todd Schobel, STOPit App Developer

“It’s changing the culture of schools. One administrator said to me, ‘We feel like we have a warm blanket around us once again.’”

There's an App for That

“The best response or the best defense to bullying claims is prevention,” Cloherty said. “If you have your workforce trained to detect and prevent bullying, it's going to go far in making sure the claims never come forward.”

SPELL, the school insurance pool, was one of the first insurers to cover the cost for schools to implement anonymous reporting apps like STOPit. So far, 14 of the pool's 76 schools have signed on.

Great American Insurance Group, which provides insurance or reinsurance to schools from California to Maine started to offer STOPit app in 2016, according to Scott Rohr, president of Great American's public sector division.

Bullying can result in general liability and errors and omissions claims, SPELL's Tennant said.

In New Jersey, the state's Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying law requires schools to fill out paperwork and investigate bullying claims. “The problem is when you become aware of [the bullying], it's often much later. It's very difficult to investigate, it's difficult to find out what occurred and it's difficult to make a difference,” Tennant said.

The app allows users to send text messages, pictures or videos to a designated administrator. A chat window opens allowing for a two-way discussion, but the identity of the reporter is protected, Schobel said.

Instead of bystanders, students can become up-standers, he said.

The app allows administrators to get involved sooner, while also creating an automatic paper trail, Tennant said.

“That reduces the claims stream,” Tennant said. “For every one of those events that we can check off, that's $100,000 saved.”

Most claims start out as some form of bodily injury, Tennant said. But any failure of the school to follow the appropriate protocol and “the claim will morph into an E&O claim as well,” Tennant said.

Cry for Help

While STOPit was inspired to stop bullying, Great American's Rohr said there are broader applications, including reporting cases of abuse and harassment, both in schools and in corporate America.

“In my 29 years in my career devoted to public entities and public schools, to my dismay, abuse and molestation have been an ongoing issue. I've seen different types of training for teachers and staff, and nothing seems to work. What I really love about the STOPit app is it allows the students to be part of the solution,” Rohr said. “It's the only risk management tool that I've seen that really does work.”

Rohr said anonymous apps work because “the peer group kids usually know—almost always know—that something is in disarray. If somebody is being abused by a person or authority, some other kids know this. Or in some cases, there are other adults who know this, or they have a good inkling. Maybe not enough to meet with the principal or call an 800 number, but enough to take action anonymously.”

Schobel said an anonymous tip reporting through the app led a teacher/coach to be convicted of abuse.

When it comes to bullying, school administrators say just installing the app acts as a deterrent.

Not Just for Schools

Great American specializes in insuring and reinsuring public insurance pools across the country, including county and municipal pools. It's also offered the STOPit app to municipal pools.

Somerset County, N.J. Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson met Schobel on a golf course and immediately thought the app would be great for his community.

“Police and law enforcement can't be everywhere,” Robertson said. “The community is our eyes and ears.”

Since rolling out the app about a year ago, anonymous tipsters have helped authorities capture two fugitives, he said.

“It's a very useful tool in a day and age when every person you see is walking along with a cellphone,” Robertson said.

When a civilian in Somerset County sends a tip through the app, it is routed to the emergency management center and then on to designated law enforcement authorities. The tip alone isn't enough to trigger immediate police action, Robertson said, but the tips are investigated and vetted.

“The best part about the app, and why it's called STOPit, is to deter these behaviors,” Schobel said. Use of the app continues to grow, as schools, businesses and municipalities both in the U.S. and overseas adopt it.

“It's creating safer places, we hear it's creating kinder places,” Schobel said. “It's changing the culture of schools … one administrators said to me, 'We feel like we have a warm blanket around us once again.'”

 

Meg Green is a senior associate editor. She can be reached at meg.green@ambest.com.


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