Harassment at school is a serious problem that can lead to problems with self-esteem, lack of academic focus and withdrawal from friends and family. While there are no federal laws that target bullying directly, the behavior falls under several different types of harassment laws. Some school districts, cities and states do have laws that relate specifically to bullying.
Federal Protection for Students with Harassment Laws
Federal civil rights laws provide protection from harassment that is based on a student’s, race, religion, gender, national origin, disability or color (StopBullying.gov). Those laws do not cover LGBT youth being harassed due to their sexual orientation, but certain cases may overlap. For example, a male student who is being bullied for an effeminate nature, whether or not he is gay, has rights under this law.
The Harassment laws that provide protection to these groups include:
- Title IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964)
- Title IX of the Education Amendments (1972)
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973)
- Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
Vermont (Vermont.gov) is an example of state that has separate laws relating to harassment and bullying. The state has defined the latter as behavior directed at a student by one or more others that is:
- Intended to humiliate, intimidate or ridicule
- Taking place on school property, during a school-sponsored event, or interfering with access to school
The law applies to cyber bullying as well as in-person harassment. The state of Vermont also recognizes sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status as protected classes in their harassment laws, in addition to those classes protected by federal laws.
State laws may cover certain behaviors and not others as well as protecting only certain classes of students. States and school districts also vary widely in their determination to enforce the relevant laws. Some states specifically word their laws to apply to online behavior and others have laws that can apply to online behavior although they do not specifically mention it (NCSL.org).
Laws also vary considerably in their definition of what constitutes harassment. Twenty-three states require that the bullies have “intent to harm” or know that their actions could result in harm (Sacco et al, 2012). These types of laws are giant loopholes for bullies who claim that they had no idea their actions were harming another student.
Consequences can also vary considerably depending on the state or school district. Only 34 states require that violating the school’s harassment policy have consequences, and only some of those specify what the consequences should be. Of the states that do specify consequences, they range from suspension to mandatory school transfers to expulsion.
Translation of Harassment Laws to Harassment Policies
All children have the right to a free, public education in the U.S. All 50 states have laws preventing harassment that apply to schools and should protect everyone. Forty-eight of them have specific laws relating to harassment in schools (Sacco et al, 2012). However, there are still problems ensuring the safety of all students in the public school system.
There are many reasons for this. One of them is that state law frequently requires that all school districts create and adopt a harassment policy but does not define exactly what goes into them. Some states provide models for what they believe is an ideal policy while others leave it entirely up to the school district.
Many states do specifically address groups that are to be protected under school policy. These include at least all of the classes of protected individuals under federal civil rights laws. Many states have added sexual orientation, gender identity and other groups to their protected classes.
States have often taken great pains to stress that the listed groups of protected individuals are not the only ones that should be protected by a school harassment policy. However, within the confines of the state law, schools are free to make their own definitions of harassment. This can result in policies that do not protect certain groups of students as effectively as others.
Enforcement of Harassment Laws and Policies
One of the biggest issues with school harassment policies is that they depend on enforcement. Where enforcement is solid, harassment is less of a problem. Where enforcement is lenient, harassment levels may be extreme. Teacher enforcement is important, but teachers also require support from administrative personnel and school boards in order to be truly effective.
Harassment Laws: Prevention and Education
Most states envision a day when harassment in schools is no longer a problem. In order to achieve this goal, most of them envision using positive education. However, most states do not identify any source of funding for school harassment policies at all. Those that do provide theoretical sources of funding may or may not actually give school districts the money.
When there is little funding for school harassment programs, what little there is must be used to put out the fires. Harassment problems that already exist need the attention more urgently than those that may occur in the future. However, this leaves potential educational programs aimed toward preventing problems languishing without attention.
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