Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to educators, elevating the importance of reducing bullying in schools. In the 10-page letter, Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali wrote, “some student misconduct that falls under a school’s anti-bullying policy may also trigger responsibilities under one or more of the federal anti-discrimination laws enforced by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights.”
The letter covers broad ground with respect to the need for schools to intervene on behalf of students whose rights may have been violated by hostile actions, words, or environments that encourage harassment of students as a result of their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability.
The document also provides several hypothetical examples of abusive and/or harassing behaviors that would be a violation of students’ civil rights, and for which the school would be “responsible for addressing.”
However, less guidance is provided when it comes to how these schools should address the issue, opening the door for a potential reliance on ineffective zero-tolerance policies. While many schools have adopted anti-bullying policies that seek to address the problem holistically, many more have dealt with bullying through zero-tolerance policies that exacerbate racial disparity and increase the criminalization of youth without addressing the culture and/or root causes of the abuse and violence that they seek to remedy.
Research has shown that zero-tolerance policies — which transfer the decision-making responsibility from the schools to the courts — produce disproportionately negative impacts on youth of color, particularly African-American youth. For example, in a report by Building Blocks for Youth on the unintended consequences of exclusionary discipline policies, African-American youth were two to 17 times more likely to be suspended for “school board policy violations” than their white counterparts.
In response to this problem, it is important for schools to establish an inclusive culture that does not condone bullying or other forms of discrimination and violence. It is also important that schools offer a continuum of prevention and intervention efforts that are swift and appropriate. Although the OCR letter does not explicitly discourage the use of zero tolerance policies, it does offer a number of alternatives that include counseling and restorative justice approaches that allow schools to lead reconciliation efforts that do more than criminalize bad behavior, but which seek to change the school climate so as to promote learning, diversity, and inclusion.
Schools are learning environments for our children, not just for rote skills, but also for critical thinking and social skills that will help them compete in a global environment as responsible adults.
As educators and administrators consider the important anti-bullying message of the OCR letter, they must also consider the plethora of policy alternatives that ensure their efforts to address bullying do not unintentionally violate other civil and human rights in the process.