Dept. of Education Warns Schools on Bullying

The Department of Education issued a letter to schools nationwide focusing on harassment that violates federal law

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday issued warnings to schools, colleges and universities across the nation that failure to address some forms of bullying—including sexual and gender-based harassment—could violate federal non-discrimination laws.


The department said it made the determination to send the letters as a response to the rapidly escalating epidemic of bullying in schools, which recently resulted in a spate of LGBT teen suicides.


“Certainly the unspeakable tragedies over the past several weeks contribute to our sense of urgency, and it’s important that the public know there are things schools and universities can and should be doing,” said Russlyn Ali, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights and the author of the government’s advisory.


Ali told the Associated Press that her office had received 800 complaints of harassment over the past fiscal year, and that perpetrators of bullying often seem to target specific groups such as LGBT youth and Muslim students.


“Our goal here is to provide school districts, colleges and universities with details about when harassment can rise to the level of a civil rights violation and what they should be doing about it,” Ali said.


The Department of Education has distributed similar reminders to educators in the past, and the laws referenced in the letter fail to specifically protect students based on sexual orientation or gender identity due to the ongoing lack of LGBT-inclusive federal non-discrimination legislation. However, the guidelines clearly outline for the first time how federal non-discrimination laws potentially protect LGBT students if they are sexually harassed or bullied based on gender stereotypes.


The letter, entitled, “Dear Colleague,” offered educators several hypothetical harassment situations that could violate federal laws, including a case of a gay student faced with anti-LGBT intimidation. The example, and the department’s explanation of its application to federal non-discrimination clauses, reads as follows:


“Over the course of a school year, a gay high school student was called names (including anti-gay slurs and sexual comments) both to his face and on social networking sites, physically assaulted, threatened, and ridiculed because he did not conform to stereotypical notions of how teenage boys are expected to act and appear (e.g., effeminate mannerisms, nontraditional choice of extracurricular activities, apparel, and personal grooming choices).  As a result, the student dropped out of the drama club to avoid further harassment.  Based on the student’s self-identification as gay and the homophobic nature of some of the harassment, the school did not recognize that the misconduct included discrimination covered by Title IX.  The school responded to complaints from the student by reprimanding the perpetrators consistent with its anti-bullying policy.  The reprimands of the identified perpetrators stopped the harassment by those individuals.  It did not, however, stop others from undertaking similar harassment of the student.

‘As noted in the example, the school failed to recognize the pattern of misconduct as a form of sex discrimination under Title IX.  Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser—i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex.  It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping.  Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity.  Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target.”

In addition to the guidance letter, The White House and Department of Education announced next steps to address bullying and harassment in schools. Early next year, the White House says it will host a conference to raise awareness and equip young people, parents, educators, coaches and other community leaders with tools to prevent bullying and harassment, and to, “spark a dialogue on the ways in which communities can come together to prevent bullying and harassment.”


To read the full “Dear Colleague” letter, please click here.


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