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Dept. of Ed: Some bullying violates federal law The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is warning schools: Tolerating or failing to adequately address ethnic, sexual or gender-based harassment could put them in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.
After several high-profile cases of bullying, ED is sending letters to schools, colleges and universities across the country on Oct. 26, reminding them of their federal obligations.
Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights, said ED was responding to what it senses as a growing problem within schools.
She said the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had received 800 complaints alleging harassment over the last fiscal year, and that reports from the field indicate an increase of harassment against certain groups — including gays and lesbians, as well as Muslim students after the 9/11 attacks.
In September, 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate secretly webcast his dorm-room tryst with a man, police said. The roommate and another student have been charged with invasion of privacy, and authorities are considering whether to add a hate-crime charge.
In January, a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl, Phoebe Prince, took her own life after being relentlessly bullied by her classmates, prosecutors said. Six teenagers have been charged.
“Certainly the unspeakable tragedies over the past several weeks contribute to our sense of urgency, and it’s important that the public know there are things schools and universities can and should be doing,” Ali said.
OCR has issued similar guidance letters to educators in the past. But this is the first time the agency is addressing all statutes, not just those protecting against gender or sexual offenses, and in the context of bullying and harassment, Ali said.
The letter also clarifies protections for students of religious groups and gay and lesbian individuals.
While the laws the OCR enforces do not protect against harassment based on religious or sexual orientation, there are protections for students from religious groups that share ancestry or ethnic characteristics, as well as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students based on gender stereotypes.
Tolerating, not adequately addressing, encouraging or ignoring harassment based on race, color, disability, sex, or national origin can indicate the violation of civil rights statutes.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan sought to assure students that action will be taken.
“No one should ever feel harassed or unsafe in a school simply because they act or think or dress differently than others,” Duncan said. “To every student who feels threatened or harassed, for whatever reason, please know that you are not alone. Please know that there are people who love you. And please know that we will protect you.” 41 eSM STAR Tackling School Bullying States struggle with appropriate cyber bullying laws With awareness of the dangers of cyber bullying on the rise, many states are working to revise their laws on harassment to bring them in line with the digital era. But the struggles of two states in particular show how hard it can be for lawmakers to find a middle ground between protecting student safety and honoring free-speech rights.
In Arizona, critics of a new bill to combat cyber bullying fear it could make being annoying, offensive, or maybe even provocative online a criminal offense. In Connecticut, similar concerns exist about a bill proposed by state prosecutors that would make “electronic harassment” a crime.
Arizona House Bill 2549 would amend the telephone harassment section of the state’s anti-stalking law to include the communication technology of the day.
The portion in question reads: “It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy, or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd, or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.” “Electronic or digital device” would supplant “telephone.” But the substitution might alter the focus of the law, some contend.
“Telephones are basically one-to-one devices, so a phone call that uses profane language to offend is likely meant only to offend the one recipient, rather than to persuade or inform anyone,” writes Eugene Volokh, who teaches free-speech law at UCLA. “But computers used to post Facebook messages or send Twitter messages or post blog items can offend some listeners while persuading and informing others.” Volokh notes that interpretations of “profane language” could extend to material someone deems religiously offensive, potentially rendering the statute unconstitutional.
The Media Coalition, which is focused on First Amendment issues, has sent a memo to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, saying the changes expand the bill to cover more than was probably intended.
As the note points out, nothing in the bill explicitly states that the objectionable communication must be directed at an individual, something that could be assumed when it focused on telephone communication.
The group goes on to say, “There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed, or scared. It is unclear if the communication must be intended to offend or annoy a specific person or if a general intent to do so is sufficient.” The bill was stopped in the state House by one of its sponsors after having been unanimously approved by the state Senate. According to the Phoenix New Times, state Rep.
Vic Williams spoke with Media Coalition and is willing to get input and suggestions to help clarify the bill.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut on April 5 blasted a bill proposed by state prosecutors that would make “electronic harassment” a crime—including such acts as posting information online that “has the effect of causing substantial embarrassment or humiliation to [a] person within an academic or professional community.” “We have the Connecticut legislature proposing to criminalize speech that has long been protected” by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Sandra Staub, legal director for the state ACLU, said at a public hearing by the General Assembly’s judiciary committee.
“It’s vague. It’s over broad,” Staub said of the bill in an interview with the Hartford Courant. For example, she said, the bill contains “no standards for substantially interfering with someone’s academic performance.” As the bill is written, someone could be charged with electronic harassment—and, theoretically, jailed for up to a year and fined $2,000, because the crime would be a “class A” misdemeanor—even if he or she posted information about a person that was true, Staub said.
For instance, she said, even if a student posted accurate information on Facebook saying
that a certain professor had committed misconduct in the past, and that professor found it embarrassing or humiliating, the professor could ask police to arrest the student.
Long-established civil laws deal with allegations of defamation—a person can sue for slander or libel if his or her reputation is damaged by untrue information—and there’s no need to criminalize the issue, Staub said.
Besides, Staub said, in a free society, citizens should be able to offer negative opinions that might not be absolute fact. Students should be allowed to rate the performance of professors, for example, by offering criticisms that they are inept or seem to take their lectures right out of some textbook. “We have a constitutional right to annoy, bother, and offend, basically,” she said.
Moreover, there are already criminal laws under which people are arrested for threatening and harassing, she said. These laws contain well-established standards for what constitutes a crime—such as making statements that cause a person to fear physical harm.
Those criminal laws can be used now, Staub said, because if the criminal standard is met, it doesn’t matter if the threat or harassment was spoken or transmitted on Facebook or through eMail.
Several women, including representatives of sexual assault crisis organizations, testified in favor of the bill and said Connecticut’s stalking statutes are outdated.
“Technology has made it easier for stalkers,” said Heather Francisco, adult advocate and legislative liaison of Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury, Conn. “We must update the language” to include electronic and internet communications used to “harass, follow, and possibly attack,” she said.
One of the judiciary committee’s co-chairmen, Rep. Gerald Fox, D-Stamford, said that the committee had merged suggestions from Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane and Richard Colangelo, senior assistant state’s attorney in the Stamford-Norwalk judicial district, into a single bill. The electronic harassment provisions that drew the heaviest objections apparently come from Colangelo and might have been modeled after other states’ laws, Fox said.
44 eSM STAR Tackling School Bullying Fox said he recognizes that some of the language is a concern—”someone’s threshold for harassment might be much lower than someone else’s.” But he added that new technology makes some harassment and threatening cases harder for law enforcement officials.
He said if the committee approves any bill, it probably would be a modified version designed to pass “constitutional muster.” Copyright (c) 2012, the Los Angeles Times and the Hartford Courant, with additional reporting from eSchool Media. Distributed by MCT Information Services.
Federal officials aim to prevent bullying during national summit In day two of the federal Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C., policy experts from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and school leaders shifted their conversations from the scope of bullying across the country to the practical steps schools can take right now to help prevent bullying in the classroom.
While most of the sessions were helpful, federal officials were short on answers to questions about cyber bullying.
Read about Day One here.
The day’s session began with a description of the specific actions the DOJ is taking in partnership with the Education Department (ED) to combat bullying, as well as the resources that will be available this year.
“The biggest focus of the DOJ right now is on prevention programs in schools.
Punishment, while in some cases appropriate, is not the only thing the DOJ is about,” said Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli.
According to Perrelli, the DOJ has conducted numerous studies on youth violence, most recently a report called the “National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence,” which found that 60 percent of children in the U.S. are at some point exposed to crime, abuse, and/or violence.
In light of these and other findings, Perrelli said the DOJ understands the importance of a partnership with ED. Perrelli said both agencies are looking at prevention strategies that focus first on getting everyone in the community (business executives, school leaders, parents, and students) united to prevent bullying, and second on fostering a sense of responsibility in youth to intervene and report on bullying.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) also has a Model Programs Guide, which is an online portal to scientifically tested and proven programs that address a range of issues across the juvenile justice spectrum. The Guide profiles more than
175 prevention and intervention programs and helps communities identify those that best suit their needs. Users can search the Guide’s database by program category, target population, risk and protective factors, effectiveness rating, and other parameters.
OJJDP also will begin a five-bulletin series dedicated to bullying issues and research, starting in late 2010 or early 2011.
Although prevention programs can pave the way for bully-free school environments, there are also many legal steps students and parents can take to combat bullying, said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at ED.
“So many times students and parents don’t know that bullying can fall under the protection of their civil rights, and that they have options that go beyond local law enforcement,” Ali said.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which has 12 offices around the country, enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin), Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (which prohibits discrimination based on sex), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities).
The OCR receives and resolves complaints, which Ali said this year will reach upwards of 7,000—and about 70 percent of those complaints will be from middle and secondary school students.
“What we do is deal with each case and how that case relates to what’s happening in schools. In many cases, we review the school culture as a whole and mandate programs, have schools provide counseling for the student, raise community awareness, and much more,” explained Ali.
To learn more about filing a complaint with the OCR, go here.
However, while the DOJ and OCR are making strides in combating bullying, some issues have yet to be resolved.
For example, Perrelli was asked by a summit attendee how schools can combat cyber bullying, because most of it happens off school grounds.
“Some of the most aggressive and vicious bullying happens through the web when students are out of schools, and many schools are asking if, and how, they can step in and stop this bullying. It seems that perhaps the DOJ should take more of a leadership role in this area,” said the attendee.
In response, Perrelli said the DOJ will step up its work on this issue.
Parry Aftab, a lawyer with a specialty in cyberlaw and cyber bullying and creator of WiredSafety.org, asked Ali how civil rights could affect cyber bullying.
“While we wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling on school involvement in cyber bullying, perhaps the OCR could intervene,” said Aftab.