Recently, the Department of Education reminded all schools and their educators that student bullying can escalate into federal offense. In an effort to reduce the number of reported student suicides as a result of bullying and harassment from student peers and reported cases of student bullying, the Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) warned that student bullying on the basis of race, national origin, sex, or disability, all of which are protected classes, violates numerous federal laws.
Protected classes are features or characteristics of a person which cannot be discriminated against. For example, a person cannot be discriminated against based upon his or her race.
Thus, when students bully other students on the basis of a protected class, the students violate federal laws. These federal laws including the Title VI Civil Rights of 1964 (race, color, and national origin), Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1973 (sex), Section 504 of the Rehabilitative Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (disabilities).
According to the law, student bullying that causes discrimination against any protected class creates a hostile environment that permits bullying and allows discrimination to continue. This continuation of discrimination results in a violation of a student’s civil rights, because it is “sufficiently severe, pervasive, and persistent” that it negatively interferes with a student’s ability to participate in school and the enjoy the benefits of school.
Since schools receive federal funding through the Department of Education, they have a legal obligation to abide by these federal laws, which means enforcing anti-discrimination policies as they apply to instances of discriminatory bullying to protect the civil rights of all students. Moreover, schools can be held vicariously liable for the failure of their teachers to prevent bullying on the basis of discrimination against a protected class.
Individually, teachers can also be held liable for failing to prohibit bullying on the basis of race, national origin, sex, or disability, because if it is found that they knew or should have known that bullying based on discrimination occurred on school premises. The OCR lists numerous examples of instances where teachers should investigate, including cell phone usage and the Internet.
Victims of bullying which results in discrimination may file complaints with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), or a person may file on the victim’s behalf. Any schools found to be in violation of federal statutes risk losing federal funding from the government.
As with any law, the true problem is not with the law itself, but rather its enforcement. For example, who will prove that a teacher was aware of bullying behavior or should have known about bullying behavior, when bullies are sneaky?
In fact, many students bullies increasingly rely on Internet and cell phones to harass and torment other students, which basically allows students to bully outside of school premises and at virtually anytime. However, for teachers to investigate cell phones and Internet activities, they risk violating student privacy protections under the law.
Additionally, the current legislation assumes that victims of bullying will report incidents to their teacher or their parents. Often, students have a pride and a dignity that comes with being capable of protecting oneself, and bullies tend to chip away at these aspects of a child’s personality. Consequently, this factor contributes to child victims of bullying internalizing anger and shame so much so that they do not report bullying until they reach a breaking point.
Also, federal laws fail to address bullying that does not involve aspects of discrimination. For instance, some people are bullied, because they may appear physically weaker, or an “easy target” for individuals. Aside from civil lawsuits, federal prohibitions applied to bullying with discriminatory aspects do not fully cease the existence of bullying behavior.
A more feasible method of handling bullying behavior should consist of parental involvement and the possibility of parental liability, which is something that is lacking in the current federal legislation. Most often, children’s behavior reflects the things they witness within their home environments, or other emotional problems that require counseling.
Pushing the blame solely on the backs of already overwhelmed teachers and often under-funded schools perpetuates the current weakness in today’s educational system. This system expects teachers to be miracle workers without the resources to succeed, and the parental support and involvement necessary to help children thrive and to behave with respect towards other students.
Besides, the educational system already contains provisions for reprimanding teachers who fail to prevent student bullying and various anti-harassment policies. Incompetent teachers can be fired. Teachers even face demotions and disciplinary reports in their work records, if they fail to rectify problems with bullying once they are made aware of situations between their students.
Realistically, some of the burden to prevent bullying belongs with the parents of the bullies. All the laws in the world will not solve the problem, but they are a start towards the right direction.
Kerry Elevald. “Department of Ed Targets Bullying,” Advocate.com.
Russyln H. Ali. “Dear Colleague Letter – Harassment and Bullying,” Dept. of Ed, Office for Civil Rights.
Sam Dillion. “Help Stop Bullying, U.S. Tells Educators,” NYTimes.