Schools are failing to keep students safe

Posted: March 18, 2011

By Thomas E. Perez

and Russlynn H. Ali

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office recently reached an agreement with the School District of Philadelphia to address reports of severe, pervasive bullying of Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School. Students at the school described chronic harassment that ultimately led to violence, as well as the failure of the School District to take sufficient action to stop it.

We hope this agreement serves as a template for other districts to evaluate their practices, take active steps to prevent harassment, and ensure they have policies in place to protect students. It should also serve as a reminder to school administrators that they will be held accountable if they fail to live up to their responsibility to provide a safe environment for every student.

In a nation that values education, every child must be able to go to school in a safe environment. Administrators who don't create such an environment are hurting students' ability to succeed in school and in life.

And yet we constantly see cases of severe bullying and harassment of students by their peers, devastating and demoralizing them when they are most impressionable. Recent months have seen several reports of students - particularly gay students - taking their own lives to escape the suffering caused by persistent bullying.

In addition to these tragic stories, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights receive reports of student harassment for a host of other invidious reasons.

One recent case took place in Mohawk County, N.Y., where a student was subjected to verbal and physical abuse over the course of 21/2 years because he failed to conform to gender stereotypes. The student eventually moved to another district, but after the Civil Rights Division intervened, the district where the abuse occurred agreed to take steps to spare other students the same sort of cruelty.

We see students taunted because of their religion - particularly Muslim students, who are the youngest victims of a persistent post-9/11 backlash. We see harassment based on students' disabilities, the color of their skin, and the language they speak. We see sexual harassment of both girls and boys. And we continue to see harassment of students who don't conform to their peers' stereotypes of how a girl or boy is supposed to behave.

It may be tempting to write off such incidents as part of growing up - to say "kids will be kids." But for the students who are targeted and tormented, the pain is real and lasting. This is a national tragedy, and schools have a moral and legal obligation to stop it.

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights recently issued an open letter describing schools' responsibilities in cases of peer harassment and bullying. It provides examples of harassment based on race, national origin, gender, sexuality, and disability, and it outlines the actions schools should take in response. The office also helps investigate and resolve hundreds of student complaints of harassment every year, providing technical assistance to school officials, parents, students, and others, and informing them of their rights and responsibilities.

Last week, President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted parents, educators, policymakers, nonprofit leaders, officials, and students from across the country at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. The conference put a spotlight on successful efforts to combat bullying in schools and communities, reminding us of our shared responsibility to ensure that safety and tolerance are priorities in every school and community.

If we fail to help our children understand the importance of tolerance and diversity, we will ultimately raise a nation of intolerant, hateful adults. That's why we must teach the traditions of tolerance and respect that are fundamental to the American way of life.


Thomas E. Perez is assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Russlynn H. Ali is assistant secretary for the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

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