Bully-free school is a civil right

After a wave of student suicides, the Obama administration is launching an anti-bullying campaign, warning educators that students’ civil rights may be violated by bullying and harassment. Punishing bullies may not be enough, wrote Russlyn Ali, assistant Education secretary for civil rights, in an advisory letter.

As an example, Ali noted in the advisory that a gay student might withdraw from school activities after being subjected to anti-gay slurs and other intimidation. If the school reprimands the perpetrators to stop the bullying, her advisory said, that would not necessarily be enough to ensure that students are free from harassment based on gender stereotypes.

“The school had an obligation to take immediate and effective action to eliminate the hostile environment,” Ali wrote.

As part of the It Gets Better project to persuade gay teens to keep going, President Obama made a video. “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage,” Obama says.

In New Jersey,  a bipartisan coalition of legislators has introduced an “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” which would require more training on preventing bullying and stiffen reporting rules.

Last month, Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate set up a webcam and streamed online a gay sexual encounter in his dorm room.

Update: After a conversation with Russlyn Ali, who’s a friend, Rick Hess is concerned about implementation. Ali said the feds will move to “enforcement” only if local officials ignore a systemic problem.  He trusts her judgement, but . .  .

My uneasiness is that I know of far too many cases where overeager federal bureaucrats have turned reasonable processes into ludicrous exercises, and where knee-knocking state and local officials have responded by winding educators in a bubble wrap of infuriating, time-consuming requirements and process.

. . . I fear that the current Department is inclined to adopt an expansive view of its role. And I worry about teachers and school leaders getting wrapped in new rules, procedures, and processes designed primarily to keep the feds at bay.

Bullying and harassment are common on school campuses, if federal data are accurate. Hess wonders if we’ve “defined bullying down”  to include teasing.

We absolutely need to protect vulnerable youth from bullies and harassment. We need schools to be places where students are safe and able to learn.

But we need to appreciate “the difference between asking schools to combat harassment and expecting overburdened educators to bring peace on earth and good will among men.”


About Joanne


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    This is going to be tough for administrators. Butthead kids frequently have butthead parents–no surprise there–who will not be pleased to discover that their kids have to be disciplined.
    When my kids were seniors, it was pretty clear that a kid could get away with anything as long as his parents complained about the discipline, or had a history of complaining about it.
    This will be a paradigm shift for the buttheads and their parents.
    I hope the actions against bullying do not stop at the problem of the bullying of gays.
    Plenty of other stuff goes on.

  2. Homeschooling Granny says:

    The causes of bullying and the ways in which it can be done are so complex and subtle, I wonder whether it is possible for school personnel alone to handle it. Perhaps it is a mistake for those in education to undertake its control without also involving parents. I fear that just as schools are blamed for educational failings that begin at home, they will be blamed for bullying that is rooted in the homes.

  3. So if one student calls another a name, will it be handled in federal court? Will the ACLU file an amicus brief?

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    What’s really sad about this recent brouhaha is that the case of the college suicide isn’t even a case of bullying — it’s a case of a tort at the very least (intrusion on seclusion in New Jersey) and quite possibly felony wiretapping. Erin O’Connor has an excellent post on this: http://erinoconnor.org/2010/10/your-felony-hurts-my-feelings/

    It’s also demeaning to the victims to call pretty much anything that happens in college “bullying”. As young adults, the time for treating things that in high school would be called bullying has passed for college students, and they should be expected to comport themselves as adults, subject to the rule of law. An adult should avail themselves of the legal system if they are assaulted or defamed, and if they are merely treated poorly they should damn well be expected to suck it up and take responsibility for changing their own circumstances; only a child should complain of “bullying.”

  5. Great initiative! Now all we need to do is to make it wrong to bullied in the rest of society.

  6. cranberry says:

    LOS ANGELES (AP) — Half of high school students say they’ve bullied someone in the past year, and nearly half say they’ve been the victim of bullying, according to a national study released Tuesday.


    I am not in favor of bullying. I think the adults in a school do have a duty to establish a school culture which promotes respect, and discourages bullying. However, bullies and the bullied do not fall into neat, mutually-exclusive categories. It’s a very complex behavior, and so much happens outside of adults’ knowledge, as anyone who’s ever been a teenager may remember.

    Students will be mean and cruel to each other. Short of expelling half the student body, adult administrators can do very little.

  7. some days, I’m not sure that expelling half the student body would be such a bad idea…

    if education were seen as a privilege, rather than a right – or rather, how lots of kids see it, a prison sentence to be endured – things might be very different.

  8. So what happens if the bully is in special needs? Who wins? In certain cases the special needs student can not be expelled.

  9. I support Cranberry and Ricki. Schools need to be able to expel (including either temporary or permanent alternative placement) chronic problem kids. Also, a lot of people, both kids and adults, need to grow thicker skins. No one has the right never to be offended.

  10. cranberry says:

    I wasn’t actually proposing expelling half the student body. From what I’ve witnessed in private schools, suspending or expelling only a few students gets eeveryone’s attention, and helps to improve behavior.

    Unfortunately, if you expelled half the student body for nasty comments, in a few months, you’d need to expel half of the remaining students for nasty comments. And so on… It would trim school budgets very quickly.

    There is a line which must be maintained. The Phoebe Prince case illustrates that. When I read that students felt empowered to abuse her verbally in front of adults, even students who weren’t in her class popping their head into her classroom to shout abuse at her in front of teachers–that’s a school which no one should defend.

  11. The idea of bullying has come to a boil with the recent and horrific story of a college student killing himself over a reprehensible violation. One that, ironically, is not really “bullying” per se.

    Two things are virtually indisputable in my view. One is that bullying is prevalent in our schools. Two is that there appears little that administrators have been able to do to stop it in the 40 years I’ve been alive.

    In a word, bullying existed when I was 5, and it’s not really much better apparently now that my own son is 5 and in school.

    On the one hand, I’m not really surprised it continues, when one considers the real culture of intolerance that is just beneath the surface in our public schools – witness the recent revelations of a meeting of the New Jersey Education Association, where teachers were caught on tape screeching about various levels of violence they want to inflict on the governor and members of the minority party in our state.

    On the other, I do think that we need to take real action to eliminate, root and branch, this sort of thing not just from schools but our society. That means REAL punishments for those who engage in bullying, no matter what the darlings’ mother and father say. It means an end to the psychobabble that bullies just “need to be understood” and the “I’m OK, you’re OK” approach that has obviously failed.

  12. georgelarson says:

    I propose a contrarian approach.

    As adults we all have to deal with the flaming anal sphincters. Shouldn’t we learn how to deal with them as children? Letting kids grow up in the absence of malevolent peers will be sending sheep to join a wolf pack.

    We justify numerous educational fads based on vocational needs and social concerns. We need bullies too. Of course the only problem is that bullies interfere with the other more important things schools are trying to do, but our schools sacrifice education for all sorts of social goals.

  13. Mark Roulo says:

    As adults we all have to deal with the flaming anal sphincters. Shouldn’t we learn how to deal with them as children?

    Do you get beat up regularly on the way home after work ?

    One of my more enduring childhood memories was my father cutting me an 18″ long, 1″ diameter club for me to take to school. My instructions were very clear: If I was bullied again, I was to use the club on my assailant and to keep hitting him until I was dragged off by an adult. My father would deal with the school aftermath.

    Surprisingly, the bullying stopped the day I brought the club to school and I never had to use it.

    I suppose the work equivalent would be bringing a gun to work, but amazingly my employer has a policy against weapons on the work site. We also have security to handle being assaulted. And I can dial 911 and expect a police response if this happens at work.

    My recollections on school is that bullying was treated much more severely at work than it ever was at school.

    -Mark Roulo

  14. George Larson says:


    I attended 8 schools in 12 years. I had the crash course. I did attend school without an improvised weapon.

    No the work equivalent is not bringing a gun to work.

    The definition for bullying is significanlty less than a physical assault.

    I have seen it at work and people will frequently just accept it to keep their job. I have seen others leave to avoid it. Authority is easy to abuse. Fear is easy to cultivate.

    I am happy you do not deal with it.

  15. Homeschooling Granny says:

    georgelarson wrote: As adults we all have to deal with the flaming anal sphincters. Shouldn’t we learn how to deal with them as children? Letting kids grow up in the absence of malevolent peers will be sending sheep to join a wolf pack.

    What does not kill me makes me stronger? It isn’t true, especially not with children. They generally lack the resources to deal with teasing, bullying, or harassment. They frequently conclude that they have done something to deserve it. They don’t necessarily tell their parents. It is not at all difficult to find adults who still have issues that began with bullying at school.

    Far from being sheep to the slaughter, children who mature long enough without bullying have no difficulty recognizing that they don’t deserve it and defending themselves appropriately.

  16. George Larson says:

    Homeschooling Granny

    “Far from being sheep to the slaughter, children who mature long enough without bullying have no difficulty recognizing that they don’t deserve it and defending themselves appropriately.”

    Do you have any evidence to support this?

    If it were true there would be nothing but bullying, since it seems to be near universal. I think many just grow out of it.

    Some times I have seen this, but other times I have seen people who were not bullied become bullies for reasons I cannot fathom .

    “What does not kill me makes me stronger? It isn’t true, especially not with children.”

    I agree with your statement.

    You take a bunch of people coerce them into an environment they do not want to be. Control them with an arbitrary and opaque administrative code and what happens? You get gangs and bullies. It does not matter if you call it a school or a prison.

  17. Homeschooling Granny says:

    George, if by evidence, I may suggest my experiences, which are merely anecdotal, I do not see bullying among the homeschooled children I know. But then, they are not in a coercive environment controlled by arbitrary and opaque administrative codes. I suspect the the bullies of the world will recognize them as unlikely to be patsies.

  18. Homeschooling Granny says:

    One other thought: the homeschoolers that I see tend not to use corporal punishment. I would say that their discipline is more guidance than punishment, such as spanking, and that punishment, when it occurs, represents a breakdown rather than the norm. Set that against environments in which discipline is equated with punishment. I think this has a good deal to do with why I don’t see teasing or bullying.

  19. georgelarson says:

    I think your insight about homeschooling is very profound. I have no experience or knowledge of homeschooling.

    I do think many just grow out of bullying. My first job surrounded by adults was a great relief to me. I was worried the school environment and social behavior would continue to forever. It would be a few more years before I would encounter bullying in an adult form.

    It was not long ago that someone compared public schools to prisons in a comment. Maybe bullying and the hierarchy setting behavior that goes on in school and prison may be a sane response to an insane situation.

  20. Homeschooling Granny says:

    “Maybe bullying and the hierarchy setting behavior that goes on in school and prison may be a sane response to an insane situation.”

    You may be right, and I think you are, then Obama’s efforts to forestall bullying are doomed. They will become another bureaucratic boondoggle to plague teachers.

  21. Any truly social animal will seek to establish its place in the group’s hierarchy given a lack of structure.
    Hence, in prisons and schools, we have large populations that are not provided any structure to base their social hierarchy on, so they establish one themselves. In school, students resort to bullying, forming social cliques, or throwing all their efforts into classes, athletics, or extracurriculars to make their place. All of these are simply attempts by students to earn the most influence among their peers.
    Outside of schools and prisons, the social hierarchy is determined by other methods. In the workplace this is achieved by a job description. In the neighborhood it is determined by who has the nicest lawn or most expensive car. You will still find some that rely upon physical intimidation to establish themselves, but it is less prevalent.
    The only way for schools to eliminate bullying would be to dictate the social arrangement for the student body.