“We’re the federal government, and we’re here to help investigate you.”
The Education and Justice Departments are now taking on investigatory and prosecutorial roles against school districts on bullying and harassment cases. Historically their roles have centered on research, along with funding prevention and intervention programs on these issues.
The U.S. Department of Education and its Office of Civil Rights reaffirmed last week it would be “vigorously” investigating local school districts on complaints against the districts related to bullying and harassment. The Department’s statement followed up on presentations made by Education Department officials at their “bullying summit” two weeks ago where they announced they would be “proactively investigating” schools on bullying complaints.
Last week the Justice Department entered the fray by filing an “amicus curiae” or “friend of the court” motion in a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Indian River Central School District in New York. The case involves claims of discrimination (based on sex) by the school district in connection with harassment, physical assaults, and threats against a gay former student. The suit reportedly claims the district refused to help him and refused to allow him to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school.
According to the news report, the lawsuit was brought by Lambda Legal, a national organization that defends the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The school district filed a motion to dismiss the suit. The Justice Department stepped in, disagreeing with at least three main reasons for which the district believes the suit should be dismissed.
The radical policy shift of the federal government from a research and program funder to a proactive investigatory and prosecutorial type function is extremely intriguing.
First, it raises the issue of local control. School boards and administrators have traditionally fought hard to keep the lead in addressing school-based discipline, school climate strategies, school security, school relationships with police and the juvenile justice system, and related issues. The shift by the federal government to a proactive investigatory role begs questions of whether this shift represents an overreach by the federal government.
Second, this shift also begs a number of questions of the professional education associations. What is the position of the national associations for superintendents, principals, and school boards? Are they on board with this new policy and philosophy? Are their members willing to open their doors to federal investigators probing their disciplinary actions, climate strategies, and other interests and issues raised by complainants and the feds? If so, are they putting this “on the record” and if not, are they openly voicing their concerns?
Third, what protections will be built in to prevent frivilous claims and investigations? What will be put in place to prevent a parent or guardian with a vendetta or political agenda against their district leaders from filing a civil rights complaint against the principal or superintendent? What system will be put in place to prevent overloading the feds with frivilous complaints which could detract from investigating fewer, but more credible and substantative, complaints?
Fourth, will school districts get into a position where it is politically easier to cave in when an unwarranted civil rights complaint is filed, leaving the district to follow through with a compliance order issued by the feds to resolve the complaint?
Finally (for now), where will school districts draw additional funds for legal expenses to represent the district during typically long, drawn out civil rights investigations — especially in today’s financial crisis facing schools?
What’s your take?
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