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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fed officials warn schools on bullying

School districts, colleges and universities across the country were warned Tuesday that not properly addressing bullying and harassment against students, including incidents spurred by anti-gay sentiment or religious differences, could violate federal civil rights laws.

In a 10-page letter sent to schools and local officials, Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for the civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, wrote that schools not only have an obligation to take action against perpetrators of bullying but also to ensure that the school climate is free from a hostile environment that could lead to continued harassment.

“By limiting its response to a specific application of its anti-bullying disciplinary policy, a school may fail to properly consider whether the student misconduct also results in discriminatory harassment,” she wrote.

The president of Rivier College in Nashua, William Farrell, received a copy of the letter via e-mail Tuesday morning, as did Milford Superintendent Bob Suprenant. Suprenant said he hadn’t had a chance to read it yet but said the district is in the process of revising its anti-bullying policy to include recognition of cyberbullying, per new state requirements.

Suprenant said although teachers and administrators often feel they have a handle on the bullying issue, it’s typical that there are things happening beyond their knowledge that only the students know about.

“There’s a recognition that there are probably bullying incidents that are never brought to the attention of adults because they don’t happen under their supervision,” he said. “They happen on school buses, in locker rooms, in the bathroom; those areas that don’t have the same level of supervision. But everyone is in agreement it is certainly an issue.”

Ali told The Associated Press that the department was responding to what it senses is a growing problem. The Office for Civil Rights received 800 complaints alleging harassment in the past fiscal year. In her letter to districts, Ali outlines several hypothetical situations, including one in which a gay high school student is called names, to his face and on social networking sites, because he did not fit the stereotype for how teenage boys are supposed to look and act.

Although the school took action against the perpetrators, Ali said that wasn’t enough.

“In this example, the school had an obligation to take immediate and effective action to eliminate the hostile environment,” she wrote. “By responding to individual incidents of misconduct on an ad hoc basis only, the school failed to confront and prevent a hostile environment from continuing.”

The letter indicates the school could have sent a note to the student’s teachers so they could keep an eye out for harassment. There could have also been increased training on the school’s harassment and discrimination policies, as well as “educating the entire school community on civil rights and expectations of tolerance, specifically as they apply to gender stereotypes,” according to the letter.

New Hampshire’s new anti-bullying law, passed this summer, requires all school districts to have an anti-bullying policy, including adding cyberbullying to the definition of bullying. That can take place with cell phones, social networking sites or e-mails. District have until the beginning of 2011 to get their policies in line with new state requirements.

The new law would also define bullying to have occurred, even if off school property, “if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school.” There are also guidelines in the law for how to handle bullying once reported, requiring schools to investigate all incidents.

Suprenant said the district will address bullying that happens outside school but spills over into the school environment and disrupts the learning process, but added there are some concerns about the time commitment involved. Suprenant said parents also have to be vigilant, making sure they know what their children are doing with their cell phones and social networking profiles.

“There needs to be an understanding from everyone that resolving bullying and minimizing the bullying incidents cannot be the exclusive responsibility of the schools,” he said “Parents are a critical component in this.”

The letter sent to schools is a continuation of the White House’s attempt to address reports of anti-gay harassment and bullying in schools. Last week, President Barack Obama produced his own “It Gets Better” video, in which he condemns recent incidents where students took their own lives after being bullied for being gay.

“It’s something that just shouldn’t happen in this country,” Obama said in the video posted on the White House website. “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, that it’s some inevitable part of growing up.”

The It Gets Better Project was founded in September as a way to connect with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth to tell them that while it may seem difficult now, life will improve. The project has prompted celebrities, many of whom are openly gay, to record their own stories about the intolerance they faced in their youths.

The letter from Ali also goes into other hypothetical situations where students are harassed for their religious beliefs, as well as sexual harassment and bullying based on hatred for a person’s race, color or national origin. In all cases, including those based on anti-gay belief, Ali said there are federal civil rights laws that protect students and obligate schools to take appropriate action.

“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,” the letter reads. “Title XI 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.”

The federal Department of Education plans to follow up with the release of the guidance by holding technical assistance workshops around the country in early 2011. The goal is to help educators better understand their obligations and the resources available.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or