Bullying is a Civil Rights Issue

10/29/2010 09:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Maureen Costello Director, Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project

Kudos to the United States Department of Education for making such a strong case in this week's Dear Colleague Letter that bullying is a matter of civil rights.

The DOE rightly reframed the issue of bullying in schools as one of institutional responsibility -- one that can get schools into serious legal trouble if ignored. Among other things, the letter says "some student misconduct that falls under a school's anti-bullying policy also may trigger responsibilities under one or more of the federal antidiscrimination laws."

The DOE letter also stated that educators need to look beyond single incidents of bullying and examine the nature of the conduct for civil rights violations. If the bullying behavior is based on perceptions about someone's race, color, national origin, sex, or disability -- and if the conduct creates a hostile environment -- school administrators are expected, by law, to respond with civil rights in mind. They are expected to investigate, eliminate the hostile environment and take steps to prevent future harassment.

Too many people think that combating bullies is simple: Find them and punish them. But as Tuesday's report from the Josephson Institute of Ethics reveals, bullying is not just confined to a few bad apples. Half of high school students surveyed admitted to having bullied someone during the past year. Some of them might have been bullied themselves in the morning and then, in a different situation, bullied someone else in the afternoon.

As the DOE letter explains, schools must do a better job of investigating conduct in their hallways. Does the conduct -- the name-calling, taunts and shoves that constitute harassment -- create a discriminatory hostile environment that violates students' civil rights?

Such a hostile environment is something that can only be addressed at the school level. It's an issue of building-wide climate. Does the school accept, value and protect its students? And does that message get transmitted from the top down, from the school board to administrators to teachers?

In some school districts, that's obviously not the case -- as the behavior of a school board member in Arkansas demonstrates. His hate speech may seem extreme, but it reflects a nationwide disregard for the basic rights of LGBT students. That disregard is so widespread that many LGBT teens have had to turn to strangers for reassurance on It Gets Better.

We've heard from many teachers who have ordered our new film Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History. Their reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. But a small handful have told us that they were not permitted to show Bullied to their high school classes, or that they saw it as inappropriate for junior high. More wished that we had included "non-gay" bullying. One woman I spoke with told me parents would object, adding, "If only you'd included other forms of bullying then you could have slipped the anti-gay bullying in."

To us, those fears are evidence of a hostile environment.

These are educators who want to protect their students. But they are afraid of another set of bullies -- people who would accuse them of advancing a "pro-something (insert your choice here: gay, Latino, Jewish) agenda." And that agenda, these adult bullies say, is to win special status for a certain group of students.

Yet the only thing special about the status of bullied students, particularly LGBT teenagers, is that they're being harassed on a daily basis. It's long past time for this to stop. Bullied offered a clear message to school administrators that they can and will be held liable for the welfare of their students. We're happy to see that the DOE is finally making the same point.