When your child comes home upset about being bullied at school, it doesn’t occur to many parents to wonder if it is bullying or harassment. Most people think that it is the same thing. However, in the eyes of the law, they are two very different things. It is important to know the difference between the two in order to know what your child’s rights are and how to proceed.
While the difference may not mean a lot to the child who is being treated poorly, the way the school, the law, and other organizations deal with it can be very different. First, let’s define harassment and bullying according to the majority of schools, and laws.
Bullying – according to USLegal , the definition of bullying is an intentional act that causes harm to others. This can include verbal or non-verbal threats, taunts, physical attacks, blackmail, manipulation, or even extortion. An imbalance of power usually exists between the bully and the victim.
Harassment – USLegal defines harassment as conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, or causes fear in another person. It is unwanted behavior that offends, demeans, or threatens another person. The behavior causes a hostile environment. It can include derogatory comments, slurs, improper propositions, assault, physically impeding or blocking behavior, as well as visual insults.
While these two definitions may sound very similar, how the law deals with them are very different. Currently there are no federal laws against bullying. However, many states are stepping up to pass anti-bullying laws. The official government site for anti-bullying, stopbullying.gov shows an interactive map of the states with policies and laws against bullying. Schools across the US have implemented policies to deal with bullying, often working in conjunction with local organizations, as well as state agencies to prevent harassment and bullying from occurring at school. But there are instances when bullying crosses over the line into harassment, which may be covered by federal laws. If behavior is classified as discriminatory harassment, then the victim is protected not only by state laws, but by federal civil rights laws.
When harassment is based on a student’s race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion it is considered a violation of the student’s civil rights. These civil rights are protected by federal law. Federal law states that discriminatory harassment is enforced by the Department of Education and Department of Justice, and the Office for Civil Rights.
Laws Covering Civil Rights when it comes to Harassment and Bullying
- Title IV 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)
Defining your child’s situation accurately can determine the outcome. It is required of the school to provide an environment free from hostility to all students. When a student makes the school aware of an issue that makes them feel unsafe, makes them fear for themselves or their property, it is then required to act upon that students report. All issues that arise in school should be reported immediately and a plan of action should be developed. Whether covered by a school policy, a state law, or a federal law, the school is required to investigate and resolve the issues.
Required School Action
- Immediate action taken to investigate and determine what happened.
- The inquiry must be impartial, prompt, and complete.
- Written documentation must be completed.
- Interviews must be conducted with targeted students, offending students, and all witnesses.
- Targeted students must be informed of the steps taken to resolve the issues.
- Follow up must be done with the students to ensure it has been resolved.
If a parent feels that the school has not taken the proper steps to resolve the issue, there are further steps that can be taken. Again, this will depend on the difference between harassment and bullying. If the issue is found to be bullying, then the proper way to proceed would be to take further steps, contacting the school superintendent, then your State Department of Education. If you feel that this is a case of harassment, which violates your child’s civil rights, you could also contact the U.S. Department of Education – Office for Civil Rights, or the U.S. Department of Justice – Civil Rights Division.
When your child is facing harassment and bullying, their best advocate is the parent. You know your child better than anyone. Being an active participant in the process can help your child feel safe in their school environment.
Being active in your child’s school, through volunteering, joining the school’s parent/teacher association, being involved in your child’s activities, and being aware of what is happening in your child’s life can all help you to recognize when there are issues going on in their lives before the problem becomes a large issue. Realizing that any child can be a victim of harassment and bullying is important. While some factors may make a child more prone to being bullied, there are many children who face these issues every day without their parents even knowing it. Be aware. Be involved. Be a part of the solution.