In a hopeful sign that more aggressive action is being taken against schools, public and private, that do not begin to act aggressively to monitor and punish bullying, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) earlier this week took some firm action.
DOE sent letters to hundreds of schools across the country, warning them of potential liability for federal civil rights violations if they do not institute strong prevention and punishment policies for this kind of behavior. DOE is warning schools that either tolerating or otherwise failing to adequately address ethnic, gender-based, or sexual harassment could violate federal anti-discrimination laws. If a school is found to have failed to institute policies and practices that act to prevent bullying in any of these areas, the school could be prosecuted under U.S. Civil rights laws (of which there are several). This kind of civil liability could result if, for example, it were shown that a student was bullied because of their gender or ethnicity, or even their perceived sexual orientation.
This type of federal civil rights violation might apply, for example, in the Massachusetts bullying cases of Carl Joseph Walker Hoover and Phoebe Prince, two tragic examples of suicides caused by bullying. Walker was allegedly bullied by students because he was perceived to be effeminate and gay (ironically, his mother has reported that he was not gay, simply fragile and vulnerable.) Phoebe Prince was targeted supposedly because she was a girl and was the recipient of ethnic slurs such as “Irish slut.” In the Prince case, six students have been charged criminally with various counts of assault and even statutory rape. But if it could be shown in cases like these that any of the individual defendants’ actions were based on a protected status under federal civil rights laws and it could be shown that the school failed to take adequate measures to prevent these violations, then federal civil rights charges may also apply in addition to any state law violations.