U.S. Education Department Takes On Bullies

Three teens have committed suicide in recent months after being mercilessly bullied and harassed by classmates. The Obama administration believes that this sort of tragedy is preventable and has launched a campaign to prevent it.

On Tuesday, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights issued a guidance in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter that has been sent to more than 15,000 schools and districts and 5,000 colleges and universities to help them comply with federal civil rights laws to prevent student-on-student harassment based on race, national origin, gender, sexual preference and disability.

The 10-page letter, prepared by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali, provides real-world examples of harassment, the educational institution’s actions, and guidance on the appropriate response. It does not present any new law but seeks instead to clarify educators’ responsibilities.

In a conference call with reporters, Ali said schools, districts, and colleges and universities are charged with “stopping any incidences of bullying, discrimination or harassment that they become aware of, fixing the problem, and taking steps to ensure that it never happens again so that students have a safe place to learn.” If the Education Department receives a complaint or conducts a compliance review and finds discrimination is occurring, its first step is to work collaboratively with the educational entity’s officials on compliance, but the agency is more than prepared to go further.

“If there continues to be a continued hostile environment at that institution, we could refer to the Department of Justice to go through the courts or go through our own administrative processes,” Ali warned. “In the end, in very extreme cases where compliance is not found, school districts and universities can be subject to losing, terminating or conditioning their federal education funds.”

Harassment or bullying on a college campus is often not as easily detectible as it is in an elementary or secondary school, in large part because students live more independently. In some cases, the victim may be unwilling to come forward for fear of being perceived as less than adult or exacerbating an already difficult situation. In September, Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman, committed suicide by jumping into the Hudson River a few days after learning that his roommate had allegedly and secretly webcast Clementi having sex with another male in their dorm room.

But, Ali said, if adults on any campus “know or should have known” about any incidents of harassment or discrimination, whether or not the victim actually complained, “they have an affirmative duty to remediate and alleviate the harassing behavior.” The department has developed resolution agreements that can be tailored to the specific campus environment, depending on what gave rise to a culture of harassment or bullying.

According to White House Domestic Policy Council director Melody Barnes, many of the thousands of suicides committed by young people in the United States each year can be attributed to harassment by bullies.

“It is a widespread phenomenon that can have devastating consequences on its victims, both academically and otherwise,” she said. “We also know that it can foster low self-esteem and academic underperformance, which is bad enough, but unfortunately it has also led to acts of violence and, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, most tragically, suicides.”

To turn away or remain silent when someone is being treated this way, she added, is “simply unacceptable.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the guidance puts people on notice that everyone, from principals to cafeteria workers, must intervene and act when they see or learn of any bullying taking place.

“The federal government has an important role to play in combating harassment, but let’s be clear,” Duncan warned, “if the federal government has to get involved, if we have to step in, that means the problem was ignored for far too long and the adults and students missed the warning signs or chose not to act and there’s simply no excuse for that.”

Early next year the White House plans to host a conference on anti-bullying to equip parents and educators to prevent bullying and harassment.

“This conference is going to build upon efforts led by the U.S. Department of Education and other fed agencies, and we hope to spark a dialogue on ways in which communities can come together to prevent bullying and harassment,” Barnes said.