In a second recent letter on the subject, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reiterates its call for a reduction of bullying in schools. In response to a letter from the National School Board Association questioning the standards on which OCR based its October 2010 bullying guidance, the new letter advises that OCR will enforce those tough standards explained in its prior guidance.
OCR clarifies that although a school district will not be held liable for damages by a court unless the school district had actual knowledge of bullying that constitutes impermissible harassment, OCR will hold school districts responsible for bullying when the school district knows or reasonably should have known of bullying that constitutes harassment. Therefore, school districts must be proactive not only when bullying is a confirmed certainty, but also in those situations where administrators believe bullying is likely to be occurring.
This new bullying guidance letter confirms that OCR has not created any new responsibilities for school districts, it nonetheless suggests that OCR intends to take a strong stance against bullying in public schools. In light of the two recent OCR bullying letters, school districts should:
- Remember that harassment based on religion and sexual orientation may implicate a school district’s responsibility under federal law, not just harassment based on race, color, country of origin, gender and disability.
- Determine if reported incidents of bullying, whether based on race, color, national origin (including religion), sex (including sexual orientation) or disability,—including seemingly isolated incidents—warrant further investigation or action, which is required if the bullying is severe or widespread enough to create a hostile environment.
- Take affirmative steps to end the harassment and to prevent it from recurring.
- Revise policies and procedures to ensure they address bullying complaints in a manner that complies with federal law.