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Harassment and Bullying in Our Schools

October 29, 2010
The following blog post appears courtesy of the Civil Rights Division. In recent weeks, tragic events have underscored the devastating impact of harassment and bullying in our nation’s schools.  The recent succession of suicides provides a stark reminder that we must continue our work to ensure that all students have the right to go to school, attend classes, and participate in activities without fear that they will be harassed by their peers.  When harassment and bullying occurs, all students should be able to go to teachers and school officials and know that their complaints will be taken seriously.  Students deserve to be treated equally and with respect.  President Obama has made clear his commitment to combating harassment and bullying in schools and working to ensure that schools comply with civil rights laws that protect students from harassment. To that end, the Justice Department, along with our federal partners at the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Defense, and other federal agencies, is actively participating in a federal interagency working group on bullying.  In August, this working group convened the first-ever national anti-bullying summit and is now developing a national strategy to combat bullying.  As part of this strategy, the working group launched a website, BullyingInfo.org, which contains a host of federal anti-bullying resources, including a national database of effective anti-bullying programs. Just this week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued guidance to every school district in the United States outlining schools’ responsibilities to combat harassment and describing when harassment may violate the federal civil rights laws enforced by Office of Civil Rights.  The guidance describes schools’ obligations to address harassment on the basis of race, national origin, sex and gender, and disability.  The guidance further explains that while harassment on the basis of sexual orientation is not expressly prohibited by federal law, the law provides protections for all students, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), who are harassed because of their sex or gender characteristics.  The Justice Department fully endorses this guidance and works with the Department of Education to coordinate enforcement of federal civil rights laws on behalf of all harassed students.   The Department of Justice also works to ensure that school districts comply with the statutes the Civil Rights Division enforces, including Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion, and Title III of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in private schools.  The Civil Rights Division also coordinates the enforcement by Federal agencies of various civil rights statutes including Title VI, Title IX, and Section 504.  Earlier this year, we intervened in the case of an openly gay teenager from Mohawk, New York.   For two and a half years, the student was a victim of severe and pervasive student-on-student harassment because he failed to conform to gender stereotypes.  From 2007 until 2009, the harassment escalated from derogatory name-calling to physical threats and violence.  The student’s grades suffered.  He had multiple absences because he did not feel safe at school, and he dropped one of his favorite courses to avoid one of his harassers.  The School District knew of the harassment, and the complaint alleged that the district was deliberately indifferent in its failure to take action – neither fully investigating the allegations, nor following its anti-harassment policies and procedures.   The failure to address and prevent this kind of bullying from occurring violates Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits violations of students’ constitutional right to be free of harassment in school.  But it also reinforces intolerant and hateful behavior by allowing it to go unpunished.    The Civil Rights Division also is actively monitoring, investigating, and participating in cases involving harassment of students based on race, national origin, religion, and disability.  For example, the Division worked with a school district earlier this year to address allegations of harassment of African American students, including racial slurs.  The Division and school representatives agreed to work together to improve the district’s procedures for receiving and responding to complaints and to provide more training for faculty and staff.  In another recent matter involving discrimination on the basis of religion and national origin, the Division worked with a school district to address alleged student-on-student harassment of an Arab-American, Muslim student.  For several years and at two different schools, the student was allegedly subjected to harassment that culminated in a false bomb threat made under the student’s name.  Extensive meetings with school district officials led the district agreed to adopt revised anti-harassment policies and provide training to staff and students to prevent similar harassment from occurring in the future.  The Division has been working collaboratively with the district to ensure that the district responds to allegations of harassment and discrimination efficiently and effectively.  These are just some of our efforts to ensure that all students can attend school without the fear of facing harassment because of who they are.  The Justice Department is committed to ensuring equal educational opportunities for all students and will continue its efforts to prevent and respond to harassment and discrimination in the nation’s schools.
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