Civil rights investigators from the U.S. Department of Education spent two days last week interviewing students, teachers and administrators in Tehachapi Unified School District where a 13-year-old male student committed suicide after allegedly being bullied by classmates because he was gay.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s spokesperson confirmed this in an Associated Press story (Feds eye CA district’s handling of bullying claim). The students mother filed a complaint with the Department claiming school employees failed to adequately address years of bullying that occurred before his death, according to spokesperson Justin Hamilton.
School Boards Challenge Education Department’s “Expansive Read” of Federal Civil Rights Laws
The Department of Education announced in October that its Office for Civil Rights was interpreting federal civil rights laws to investigate bullying of gay students even though they are not a protected group under federal education civil rights laws. Hamilton said:
“What we found anecdotally was harassment of gay, lesbian and transgender students was often not referred to the Office for Civil Rights on the assumption of, if they are gay, there are no civil rights violations,” he said. “While they are not protected as a group, oftentimes the type of bullying they experience is protected. So what we are saying is, harassing someone for failing to conform to gender norms is sexual harassment.”
The National School Boards Association challenged the Education Department’s “expansive reading of the law” in an 11-page letter on December 7, 2010.
Federal Overeach and the Politicization of Bullying
There is common agreement that bullying is a serious issue which needs to be addressed. No one wants to see any child lose their life.
There are questions as to whether bullying solely and directly causes suicide. There are also many people, including me, who agree with the National School Boards Association that the U.S. Department of Education is overreaching in its “expansive” interpretation of the federal civil rights laws and in its role of investigating local school discipline and climate issues.
The Associated Press article further illustrated the politicization of bullying at the end of its article on the Tehachapi school case:
The ACLU is demanding to know what steps the district has taken to address bullying of gay students.
California state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill requiring public schools to include lessons on gay history and the contributions of prominent gays and lesbians as a way to combat bullying.
Will Federal Investigation Results Show Cause or Political Smoke?
I look forward to the Education Department publicly reporting its findings from not only this California case, but also any and all other similar cases it investigates in this area.
The real question is not only whether the Department has overreached its authority and role, but also whether there is any substance in the claims filed to the Department. It will be interesting to see where else the federal bullying police have gone and will go, and if they found anything there or if this is more political smoke than substance on the Department’s part.
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