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What Parents Should Know About Bullying

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Laws and Policy

Federal Laws

Although no federal law directly addresses bullying, in some cases, bullying overlaps with discriminatory harassment when it is based on race, national origin, color, sex, age, disability, or religion. When bullying and harassment overlap, federally-funded schools (including colleges and universities) have an obligation to resolve the harassment. When the situation is not adequately resolved, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division may be able to help.

Are there federal laws that apply to bullying?

At present, no federal law directly addresses bullying. In some cases, bullying overlaps with discriminatory harassment which is covered under federal civil rights laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). No matter what label is used (e.g., bullying, hazing, teasing), schools are obligated by these laws to address conduct that is:

  • Severe, pervasive or persistent
  • Creates a hostile environment at school. That is, it is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school
  • Based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion*.
    *Although the US Department of Education, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not directly cover religion, often religious based harassment is based on shared ancestry of ethnic characteristics which is covered. The US Department of Justice has jurisdiction over religion under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What are the federal civil rights laws ED and DOJ enforce?

A school that fails to respond appropriately to harassment of students based on a protected class may be violating one or more civil rights laws enforced by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, including:

  • Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Source: StopBullying.gov

Dear Colleague Letters

In December of 2015, The U.S. Department of Education issued strategies for schools to implement to communicate to students that bullying is not tolerated and that school is a safe space for all students.

In October 2014, as part of National Bullying Prevention Month, the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance to schools reminding them that bullying is wrong and must not be tolerated—including bullying against America's 6.5 million students with disabilities.

The Department issued guidance in the form of a letter to educators detailing public schools' responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of Americans with Disabilities Act regarding the bullying of students with disabilities. If a student with a disability is being bullied, federal law requires schools to take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the issue and, as necessary, take steps to stop the bullying and prevent it from recurring.

The October 2014 guidance builds upon letters the Department has issued in recent years concerning schools' legal obligations to fix the problem, including:

  • A 2013 dear colleague letter and enclosure by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) clarifying that when bullying of a student with a disability results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit under IDEA, the school must remedy the problem, regardless of whether the bullying was based on the student's disability.
  • A 2010 dear colleague letter by the OCR, which elaborated on potential violations when bullying and harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability.
  • A 2000 dear colleague letter by the OCR and OSERS, which explained that bullying based on disability may violate civil rights laws enforced by OCR as well as interfere with a student's receipt of special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The latest letter makes clear that the protections for students with disabilities who are bullied on any basis extend to the roughly three quarters of a million students who are not eligible for IDEA services but are entitled to services under the broader Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law bars discrimination on the basis of disability in all programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

Note: State and local laws may provide additional protections on another basis, including sexual orientation. You can find out more about your state’s bullying prevention laws on the federal bullying prevention website, www.StopBullying.gov

State Laws

Each state addresses bullying in schools differently, through laws and/or model policies for schools to adopt. These laws vary widely; however, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education reviewed all the state laws in existence at that time and recommended 11 key components of a state bullying prevention law.

  1. Purpose statement
  2. Statement of scope
  3. Specification of prohibited conduct (i.e. definition of bullying)
  4. Enumeration of specific characteristics (i.e. explains that bullying MAY include harassment of students based on actual or perceived characteristics that have historically been targets of bullying)
  5. Development and implementation of local education agencies’ (i.e. schools districts) policies
  6. Components of school policies:
    • Definition
    • Reporting bullying
    • Investigating and responding to bullying
    • Written records
    • Sanctions
    • Referrals
  7. Review of local policies
  8. Communication plan
  9. Training and preventive education
  10. Transparency and monitoring
  11. Statement of rights to other legal recourse

Find your state’s laws here.

Source: StopBullying.gov

Minnesota Law

In April 2014, Minnesota lawmakers passed the Safe and Supportive Minnesota School’s Act. This act requires schools to:

  • Have a policy that meets minimum requirements
  • Include in the policy clear definitions of bullying and other prohibited behaviors
  • Develop specific procedures for initial response and reporting
  • Investigate all reports of bullying
  • Provide strategies to support students involved in bullying
  • Designate a school staff person as primary contact for bullying situations
  • Allow a student’s IEP or 504 plan to be used to address the skills the student needs to respond to or not engage in bullying
  • Provide professional development and education

Schools are also encouraged to provide developmentally appropriate education to students about how to identify, prevent, and reduce bullying, value diversity, solve problems, and manage conflict.

The Act also created the Safe Schools Technical Assistance Center within the Minnesota Department of Education, which is designed to helping schools comply with the new law as well as to address complaints from parents and students.

Minnesota Parents and Understanding Their Rights

Minnesota Department of Education, School Safety Technical Assistance Center developed this 14 minute video to familiarize parents with Minnesota’s Safe and Supportive Schools’ law, what the law requires of schools, and the role parents can play in bullying prevention and intervention in schools and communities.

More information on the Safe and Supportive Minnesota School’s Act.

Harassment of Minnesota Students

If you believe your child has been discriminated against, please call the Minnesota Department of Human Rights Intake Line at (641) 539-1133.

School Policy

Schools often have a policy that addresses bullying, and in most states schools are required by state law to have one. Policies are generally included in the school handbook or on the website. If you are unable to locate the policy, contact your child’s principal, guidance counselor, or school social worker.

School bullying prevention polices are typically designed to protect students from bullying and give schools a roadmap for handling bullying situations. Some policies include additional items such as providing support for those who have been bullied, the guidelines for disciplining those with bullying behavior, and providing education for parents, educators and students. Every school’s policy will be different.

If you feel your child’s school is not following their policy or the state laws, contact your school administration or school board. If that does not resolve the issue, you can contact the safe schools office in your state’s department of education.

Find the contact info for your state’s safe schools office.

Check Your Knowledge

  1. Is there a federal law that addresses bullying?

    1. Yes
    2. No

    Check Answer  

    B. No. At present, no federal law directly addresses bullying. In some cases, bullying overlaps with discriminatory harassment, when based on race, national origin, color, sex, age, disability, or religion. Discriminatory harassment is covered under federal civil rights laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

  2. True or False: Every state has the same law about bullying.

    Check Answer  

    False. Each state addresses bullying in schools differently, through laws and/or model policies for schools to adopt. These laws vary widely; however, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education reviewed all the state laws in existence at that time and recommended 11 key components of a state bullying prevention law.

  3. Who should you contact if your child is being bullied at school?

    1. The principal
    2. The school social worker or counselor
    3. The Safe and Supportive Schools office
    4. Any of the above

    Check Answer  

    D. Any of the above. In addition to being supportive of your child, it is important to create a strategy for how to involve others. Document the events and develop a record, as this is useful when talking with school educators or other individuals who may need to assist parents in intervening against bullying. Check your school’s policy, as this may include who the designated reporting personnel is.

  4. Where can you most likely find your school’s bullying policy?

    1. The school handbook
    2. The school website
    3. Either of the above

    Check Answer  

    C. Either of the above. Schools often have a policy that addresses bullying, and in most states schools are required by state law to have one. Policies are generally included in the school handbook or on the website. If you are unable to locate the policy, contact your child’s principal, guidance counselor, or school social worker.

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