The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently released a letter discussing bullying in schools and the related implications of discriminatory harassment. OCR seeks to remind schools that bullying or harassment which is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability can be a violation of civil rights under Title II, Title VI, Title IX or Section 504.

Schools have specific obligations when responding to harassment.

  • Schools are responsible for addressing incidents about which it knows or reasonably should have known.
  • Schools are responsible for taking immediate and appropriate action to investigate possible harassment and the investigation should be prompt, thorough, and impartial.
  • If the investigation finds harassment has occurred, schools must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate hostile environments, and prevent returning harassment. Schools must do this even if the harassment is also covered by a school anti-bullying policy.

OCR also points out two key points for schools to remember:

·         The label used by a victim, school, or report to describe the incident does not determine a school’s obligation to respond. Rather, the nature of the conduct itself must be examined for any civil rights implications.

·         Any civil rights implications necessitate schools to act beyond mere discipline of students. Schools need to eliminate hostile environments arising from the harassment, manage the effects of the harassment, and prevent the harassment from recurring.

The letter provides a number of examples where responding to the incidents of harassment by means of a school’s anti-bullying policy would not be sufficient because the incident implicated civil rights violations. One example is of disability harassment. OCR describes a situation where a student with a learning disability is called names such as “idiot” and “retard,” tackled by students and had his personal belongings thrown into a garbage can. The school officials in this scenario responded by offering the student counseling and a psychiatric evaluation, but did not discipline any students and thus the bullying continued. OCR stated that because the school failed to identify the bullying as disability harassment under Section 505 and Title II, it did not properly investigate and remedy the misconduct as required.  OCR further stated that because the harassing conduct constituted disability harassment, the school should have taken steps toward eliminating the hostile environment such as disciplining the offending students, educating staff about harassment of students with disabilities, working with a Section 504/Title II coordinator to create an effective response or prevent the harassment from recurring.

For more information, this OCR letter is available in the Guidance Documents section of this website or at: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201010.htm

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