PITTSBURGH — A woman has filed what experts believe is a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Public Schools, claiming her daughter developed anorexia because male students bullied the girl about her weight, forcing her to leave the district.
But those experts – including the head of the National Eating Disorders Association – say linking bullying to anorexia is oversimplification, at best.
"With eating disorders, we say you're born with a gun and life pulls the trigger," said Lynn Grefe, chief executive officer of Seattle-based NEDA, who has never heard of a school being sued over such a scenario.
Generally, people who develop anorexia already have issues with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive or perfectionist behavior. Bullying could trigger anorexia in those people but not others who are taunted about their weight, Grefe said.
"The person's often a real high achiever, and if you put those people in a situation and then their world comes crashing down, they get triggered," Grefe said.
That's essentially what's described in the 10-page federal lawsuit Pittsburgh attorney Edward Olds filed Friday on behalf of an unnamed woman whose middle-school sixth-grader began to be bullied 2006-07 by three boys who called her "fat."
The girl was in a program for gifted students, made straight A's and was active in community and volunteer programs, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit contends a guidance counselor did nothing to stop the bullying. The next year, in seventh grade, two other boys joined in the daily harassment.
"Some other students tried to shame the boys about the conduct. However, no faculty member or other school official intervened," the lawsuit said.
By February 2008, the girl entered an inpatient treatment program for anorexia nervosa because "her weight was dangerously low."
The girl's mother contends school officials harassed her when she tried to home-school the girl, who now attends private school.
The woman's attorney didn't return calls for comment and a school attorney says only that he'll vigorously defend the district.
Although experts say they've never heard of a lawsuit alleging that anorexia resulted from school bullying, suits over school-based bullying are not new.
The lawsuit contends the school's alleged failure to protect the girl violates Title IX, an antidiscrimination law affecting any school that receives federal funding.
Title IX has most often been cited in lawsuits about disparities in the number of athletic opportunities and scholarships afforded to male and female athletes.
But the U.S. Supreme Court says peer-on-peer gender harassment also violates Title IX if the school should have stopped the abuse and a student lost an educational opportunity as a result, said Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.
Hutton has never seen a suit claiming school bullying caused anorexia, though Title IX bullying suits are becoming more common. "But I wouldn't say I've seen a tidal wave of them," he said.
Dr. Alberto Goldwaser, a forensic psychiatrist and expert witness on mental illnesses from New York University, cautioned against linking bullying directly to anorexia.
Goldwaser says adolescent girls with high-achieving, perfectionist tendencies are prime candidates for the disorder.
"But we cannot say that anorexia is caused by bullying or brain issues or mother-daughter relationships or any one thing," Goldwaser said.
Yet another legal expert said that focusing on the girl's anorexia misses the point of bullying lawsuits.
"Very often it's nervous orders of different kinds that are alleged in these lawsuits," said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor. That this girl developed anorexia "is completely incidental."
The issue, instead, is whether the bullying "deprives the victim of an educational opportunity. That's the language that's been used in these suits all along."