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IDEA in Practice

By Mary Beth Klotz

Department of Education Guidance on Harassment and Bullying

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently issued a “Dear Colleague” letter offering detailed guidance to schools on how civil rights law applies to incidents of bullying and harassment. It explains how student misconduct that falls under schools’ antibullying policy also may trigger responsibilities under one or more of the antidiscrimination statutes enforced by OCR. The letter serves as a powerful reminder to schools that failure to recognize discriminatory harassment when addressing bullying behavior may violate students’ federal civil rights. The guidance discusses disability harassment, sexual harassment, and harassment based on racial and national origin, and gender (including sexual orientation).

There are several antidiscrimination laws that OCR enforces, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Colleges and universities have the same obligations under these laws as elementary and secondary schools. If a school knows or should have reason to know that harassment has occurred, it must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the incident. If it is determined that harassment has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps to end the harassment, eliminate a hostile environment, and prevent reoccurrence. These obligations are the school’s responsibility even in the case where the victim has not made a complaint or asked the school for help. A complaint of discrimination can be made to OCR by anyone who believes that a school has discriminated against someone based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age.

The letter includes several real-life examples of racial, sexual, gender-based, and disability harassment that would constitute a violation of students’ civil rights and the necessary steps and corrective actions schools should take. In an example of disability harassment, the following scenario was described:

Several classmates repeatedly called a student with a learning disability, “stupid,” “idiot,” and “retard” while in school and on the bus. On one occasion, these students tackled him, hit him with a school binder, and threw his personal items in the garbage. School officials offered the victim counseling services and a psychiatric evaluation, but did not discipline the offending students. As a result, the harassment continued. The student became angry, frustrated, and depressed and often refused to go to school to avoid the harassment.

In this case, OCR clarified that while counseling may be a helpful component in the response to harassment, it would be insufficient. The school failed to recognize the behavior as disability harassment and did not adopt a comprehensive approach to eliminating the hostile environment. Steps should at least have included disciplinary action against the harassers, consultation with the district’s Section 504/Title II coordinator to ensure a comprehensive and effective response, special training for staff on recognizing and effectively responding to harassment of students with disabilities, and monitoring to ensure that the harassment did not resume.

NASP’s 2010 Ethical Standards, along with several related position statements, stress the important role school psychologists play in advocating for fairness and justice for all students. School psychologists, through their words and actions, “use their expertise to cultivate school climates that are safe and welcoming to all persons regardless of actual or perceived characteristics, including … [a student’s] disability.” In their work with students, parents, staff, and administrators, school psychologists can offer leadership on a number of levels: promoting nondiscriminatory policies, offering inservice training, providing information on legal antiharassment mandates such as the “Dear Colleague” letter, sharing information about diversity and evidence-based practices, participating on school safety committees, and perhaps most importantly of all, by modeling ethical practice through accepting and affirming attitudes, language, and behaviors.

Resources

Office of Civil Rights, Dear Colleague Letter Harassment and Bullying. (October 26, 2010) http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201010.html

NASP Position Statement on Racism, Prejudice, and Discrimination. (2004). http://www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/positionpapers/RacismPrejudice.pdf

NASP Position Statement on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth. (2006). http://www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/positionpapers/LBGTQ_Youth.pdf

NASP Principles for Professional Ethics. (2010). http://www.nasponline.org/standards/2010standards.aspx


Mary Beth Klotz, PhD, NCSP, is NASP Director, IDEA Projects and Technical Assistance.