Education Department Warns Schools on Bullying

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The Department of Education has notified schools and colleges that it intends to penalize systems that refuse to address pervasive problems with bullying that violate students’ civil rights protections. In addition, the Obama administration is planning a major multi-agency conference on bullying in January that will provide communities with ways to combat the problem.

The notice of federal expectations was issued in the form of a guidance letter written by Assistant Education Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali and sent to every to every U.S. public school district and more than 5,000 colleges and universities across the country, urging officials to be aware of civil rights laws that require schools to address bullying cases actively.

The letter specifically draws a connection between harassment of gay students and gender-based harassment – defined as action that either reinforces gender stereotypes or singles out individuals who may not conform to them – and states that students who experience this type of bullying are legally defended under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal assistance.

White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes said the letter is the Education Department’s first comprehensive effort to define harassment of gay students.

“We’re going to really challenge places that have their heads in the sand and aren’t displaying the courage to move ahead in the right direction,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Duncan said state-to-state discrepancies in laws on harassment are one reason the letter is important. By clarifying the ways existing federal law applies to all districts and higher education institutions, the department aims to raise awareness of the issue across the country. Though some states have worked to strengthen anti-bullying policies, others remain limited in their acknowledgement of what Duncan described as a problem that can leave students feeling powerless to defend themselves.

Federal efforts to increase awareness of bullying come at a time when national attention has become focused on the violent side of harassment. Half of all students said they have bullied someone in the past year, according to a study of high school students conducted this year by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, and 47 percent said they have been bullied in a way that seriously upset them. One in four students who were surveyed said that they do not feel safe at school.

For gay teens and young adults, recent news indicates the problem is even worse. Five gay students have committed suicide in a little over a month. One of those suicides, by a 15-year-old Indiana boy, sparked an impromptu online campaign called “It Gets Better.” The campaign started with a YouTube message from media columnist Dan Savage and has grown to include messages from President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  (See story, page 12).

The letter provides five hypothetical examples of situations in which students were harassed due to race, color or national origin, gender, or disability. Those groups, Ali said, are specifically protected by three pieces of federal legislation: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation are not covered specifically by any of those laws. But the department believes that Title IX includes protections that can and should be used to police most bullying of gay youths.

“Although Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation,” Ali said, “Title IX does protect all students, including [LGBT] students, from sex discrimination.”

But the guidance interprets Title IX to mean that discrimination exists if “students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity.”

The guidance urges schools to use those standards to protect their gay students.