Radical Policy Shift Targets Bullying as Federal Civil Rights Issue

Posted by on August 13, 2010

Stepped up federal civil rights investigations, new federal data collection on harassment and bullying, and formal policy guidance for local school districts outlining schools’ civil rights responsibilities to protect students will be part of the Obama Administration’s Education Department assault on bullying.

“Outside of this room, I am not sure that many educators and parents realize that bullying can constitute racial, sexual, or disability harassment prohibited by the civil rights laws enforced by our department’s Office for Civil Rights…  

OCR will be issuing policy guidance to schools explaining the relationship between bullying and discriminatory harassment, and it will be outlining schools’ civil rights responsibilities to protect students from discriminatory harassment. As part of the enhanced civil rights data collection that OCR has instituted, we will also be gathering new and better data on harassment.”   

                                     Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education 


Secretary Duncan, along with his assistants overseeing civil rights and safe schools, made it clear that the federal government will be taking a stronger and more intrusive role into how local school districts report and respond to bullying.  Their positions and emphasis on a civil rights approach to bullying and school safety were revealed in comments during a two-day “bullying summit” in D.C. which concluded on Thursday.

Duncan referred to bullying as a “gateway to hate” during his comments.

This is a radical shift from traditional approaches to addressing bullying, especially at the federal level.  Education associations have long advocated for local control in addressing local issues and needs related to managing student violations of behavior code and enhancement of school climate on a local level.  Federal outreach historically has focused on supporting research and funding for prevention and intervention programs.

It appears now the current Administration will be extending the federal reach to proactively and vigorously conduct civil rights violation complaint investigations specific to harassment and bullying claims.  The Department is encouraging students and parents to file such complaints, thereby reframing bullying as a federal civil rights issue and taking a much more prominent role in investigating, enforcing, and monitoring compliance with situations historically addressed at the local school-community level.  Local strategies for addressing bullying and other student misconduct have included enforcement of the student code of conducts and board policies, school climate and intervention strategies, due process procedures, the criminal justice system, and when necessary, by private legal counsel representing individual complaintants allegeding a violation of the law.


Russlyn Ali, Duncan’s Assistant Secretary for the Office of Civil Rights, gave comments suggesting a dramatic shift in how her office would zero in on  investigations, enforcement, monitoring, and data collection related to harassment. 

Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug Free Schools, introduced Ali as a “new sheriff in town.”  He commented that while some have said she was to “re-energize” the Civil Rights office, he prefers to say she “electrifies it.”  Ali’s comments illustrated that his description may be appropriate:

  • She noted the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) had “not been as activie as it should have been.”
  • The office would be “vigorously, vigorously” enforcing civil rights laws.
  •  OCR would be “proactively investigating school districts.”
  • “Monitoring is more aggressive than in recent histories.”
  • The office will work on “Getting better control of data” and wants to “paint a better portrait and more accurate portrait” of harassment.

Ali pointed to a difference between harassment and bullying, saying that while teasing does not rise to a level of discrimination, “hostile bullying” would elevate the situation to a level constituting discrimination.

She also noted her office would be providing policy guidance to schools in the near future on how these should deal with bullying, harassment, and discrimination issues.

Ali noted that she became more attentive to bullying after her conversation with Sirdeaner Walker, a Massachusetts mother whose son took his life after being taunted by other kids with claims of being gay.  Ms. Walker testified at the same July 2009 House subcommittee hearing in which I testified.  She was later taken to meet Ms. Ali by representatives of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) who were with her at the hearing, as shown on GLSEN’s web site.

Ms. Ali’s full comments can be viewed about 45 minutes into C-SPAN’s August 12th video of the bullying summit


Secretary Duncan said in his speech that three messages could be taken from him:

  1. First, our department has a renewed commitment to enforcing the law, including civil rights law that applies to racial, sexual, or disability harassment.
  2. Second, we are committed to collecting better data to document the contours of bullying more fully, and to formulate solutions.
  3. And finally, we will be providing more dollars to places with the biggest problems.

Given the Secretary’s comments, those of his staff, a review of proposed school safety legislation, proposed budgets, and monitoring of the advocacy and politics, here is my take on what schools can really expect:

  1. Mandatory data collection:  Through Administration policy and proposed laws likely to pass, school leaders can expect mandates for schools to collect new data on bullying, harassment, and related issues.  Anticipate a new focus to include sexual orientation and gender identity.  Also anticipate data to be survey-driven with an emphasis on climate surveys targeted to students and parents.  Know now: You will be required to publish this data not only to the states, who will in turn send it to the feds, but also to post it locally (and on a building-by-building basis) in your school community.  Carrots may be dangled to get schools to buy into limited national competitive grants focused on “climate,” but the strings (and potential sticks) coming along with it will be these mandates for collecting and publishing climate and related safety data. 
  2. Passage of federal anti-bullying laws with a civil rights theme.  Anticipate one or two federal laws getting passed by the end of this year which prohibit harassment based on race, sex, etc. — and the new enumerated categories of sexual orientation and gender identity. I anticipate the general vagueness of the laws (define harassment, for example, and add in the interpretations of what it may or may not mean) will trigger increased administrative and legal claims against local school districts.
  3. Increased federal civil rights complaints and investigations of school districts.  Vague and elusive federal anti-bullying laws, along with stepped up federal Office of Civil Rights investigations with aggressive monitoring for compliance, will likely increase law suits against school districts, increased federal civil rights investigations, and increased school legal fees.  Expect the Office of Civil Rights to also increase “proactive” investigations into school districts based on hand-picked cases they wish to pursue.
  4. Federal school safety funding skewed toward “climate” and “bullying” and provided through limited national competitive grants to a limited number of districts.  Rather than a focus on funding a more comprehensive and balanced approach to school safety, policy and funding appears skewed to “climate” and “bullying” issues.  The proposed budget for the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, whose name will also likely change, has already been skewed heavily to include over $400 million for “climate” grants with requirements for data collection and publishing.  A pilot project is already funded and applications were just recently due to the U.S. DOE.  The Safe and Drug Free Schools formula grants, which distributed money to many schools nationwide, was eliminated by Congress and the Administration as of July 1, 2010.  It is still unclear what specific activities would be allowable under the $400 million climate grants proposed for the FY2011 budget.  Policy and funding appear heavily skewed to climate and do not appear to reflect more of a comprehensive and balanced approach, which is a best practice.


It is important to note here that my concerns are not personal attacks upon Kevin Jennings, Assistant Secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.  Kevin has been exceptionally responsive, communicative, straight-forward and candid in his communications with me since he took office.  Whether or not you agree with his policies and vision, he is passionate and committed to his cause.

I do have concerns about the Department’s proposed approach to school safety policy and funding.  These concerns include:

  1. A heavily skewed focus on climate and bullying, detracting from a comprehensive and balanced policy and funding approach to other areas of school safety.
  2. Vague anti-bullying laws will do little to help those on the front-lines and will open up school districts to increased civil rights complaints and possible law suits.
  3. The politicization of school safety by special interests groups, in this case the lobbying by gay rights groups for enumeration and advancement of this social/political agenda under the guise of “anti-bullying” and “school safety.”  This is not to say there are not legitimate issues in the harassment of LGBT students, but I believe broader social and political agendas need to have the cards put on the table, call it what it is, debate it, and vote accordingly.  In this case, a civil rights issue has been pushed over the past few years under the label of “anti-bullying” when one would presume such harassment for LGBT youth occurs throughout society, i.e., the local rec center, mall, etc.  Why not then approach it as a broader, society-wide civil rights law to cover all areas instead of approaching a broader agenda in a piecemeal fashion and starting small by focusing in on schools?  No, my comments are not homophobic, they are political-phobic.

You would think, based on the emphasis from everyone who has jumped on the “bullying bandwagon” in recent years, that bullying is the only issue in school safety.  You’d also think it is something schools have never heard of and government has never done anything about bullying.  But at least one person in the federal government had a rational and truthful voice, noting their federal agency has been working on bullying for ten years (yes, Mr. Secretary, it has received priority attention by some in the federal government):

“But bullying is not a new issue for the federal government, said Jason Smith, project director of HHS’ Stop Bullying Now! campaign. He said the department first announced a public awareness campaign against bullying in 2001 to counter the myth that it’s “a rite of passage.” Research shows children who are bullied have a higher incidence of unhealthy behaviors, including smoking and underage drinking, as well as truancy.

“This is 10 years in the making that the government has understood that bullying is a public health issue and that it affects students’ ability to learn,” Smith said. He attributed the current spotlight on the issue in part to media coverage of tragedies associated with bullying, such as the suicide of an 11-year-old in Massachusetts last year. The boy hanged himself after being suffering taunts of being gay.”
So according to this honest government employee, I was correct to suggest yesterday that this “bullying summit” might be highly staged PR event? 
Perhaps my take is best summed up in a blog article by Dakari Aarons of Education week where he quotes my communications with him earlier this week:
And Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, is no fan of anti-bullying laws. He posted a blog entry earlier this week that has gotten a lot of traction and sparked strong agreement and disagreement. Trump says the movement toward anti-bullying laws is heavily influenced by the political aims of gay-rights groups that he believes are pushing for such laws as part of a civil rights agenda.

“The politicization of school safety to further any political, civil rights, or other agenda is deeply concerning. Playing politics with school safety weakens school safety and creates divisiveness. In the end, school safety will lose far beyond the agenda of one particular issue such as anti-bullying when school safety becomes a political football,” he wrote.

Part of his concern, Trump told me in an e-mail this week, is that there’s so much focus on anti-bullying policies to the exclusion of schools’ and districts’ implementation of comprehensive school safety plans, which he says is a best practice.

“We cannot have roller-coaster school safety policy and funding at any level of government. Throwing money at school safety after a high-profile incident is no wiser than is cutting school safety funding when there is not a tragedy in the headlines. School safety policy, programming, and funding must be ongoing, sustained, and reasonably funded for the long haul,” he said.

There is lots of information here, but I believe educators and parents need to see what is going on, and also need to get a feel for the extent of politics behind the scenes. They also need to get prepared to be participants in a radically new framework with heavier federal government activism in local school bullying and discipline cases. This is a dramatic shift in policy from one of  local control to federal “hands-on” intervention on individual bullying cases, so school districts need to be aware of, and prepared for, a new federal philosophy and potential player in individual school incidents.

Thanks for your interest and passion for school safety.

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com

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