Schools liable for cyberbullying

Under civil rights law, school officials must act to curb harassment of students off campus and after school, including cyberbullying, declares a “Dear Colleague” from the Education Department. From the Daily Caller:

“Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet… it does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents [but] creates a hostile environment … [which can] limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school,” according to the far-reaching letter, which was completed Oct. 26 by Russlynn Ali, who heads the agency’s civil rights office.

School officials will face lawsuits even when they are ignorant about students’ statements, if a court later decides they “reasonably should have known” about their students’ conduct, said the statement.

. . .  “The school may need to provide training or other interventions not only for the perpetrators, but also for the larger school community, to ensure that all students, their families, and school staff can recognize harassment if it recurs and know how to respond… [and] provide additional services to the student who was harassed in order to address the effects of the harassment,” said the letter.

Facebook is adding a feature that will let users “report content to someone in their support system (like a parent or teacher),” Facebook announced March 11 after the White House conference on school bullying. Presumably some children will report perceived harassment to a teacher or principal, making the school responsible for doing something about it.

The National School Board Association objects to expanding schools’ ‘legal risks,” reports Reason.

The remedies being pushed by administration officials will also violate students’ and families’ privacy rights, disregard student’s constitutional free-speech rights, spur expensive lawsuits against cash-strapped schools, and constrict school official’ ability to flexibly use their own anti-bullying policies to manage routine and unique issues, said the NSBA letter.

School officials have a responsibility to protect students from bullying and harassment when they’re in school. Making that a 24/7 obligation . . . It’s too much to ask.

Update: Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, plans to introduce legislation requiring schools that receive federal aid to report bullying to the federal government and specify whether disabled students were involved.

Asian students win bias settlement

Beaten and bullied at South Philadelphia HIgh, Asian immigrant students were credited for forcing the district to agree to provide translators and parental notification in future cases of harassment and violence, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition, the district agreed not to portray victims of attacks as perpetrators or gang members.

Hao Luu, an immigrant from Vietnam, was beaten badly by 10 to 15 students who followed him after school. When his grandmother complained, the school blamed Luu for the attack, falsely accused him of being a gang member and banned from the school.

At one point, officials accused Luu of taking part in a fight in Philadelphia in 2008, when he was living in Virginia. A notice of his suspension hearing went to his family in English, a language they struggle to understand.

Luu, now 18, has not returned to South Philadelphia High, which houses a program for students learning English. Nineteen percent of students are English Learners, most of them from Asia.

Asian students complained of being targeted by black classmates. Federal investigators found the district had deprived Asian students of equal protection by remaining “deliberately indifferent” to “severe and pervasive” harassment and violence.

Via Learning the Language.

FIRE: Anti-bullying law restricts free speech

Congress is considering an anti-bullying bill that “gravely threatens free speech,” argues the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).  The bill is named for Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who killed himself after his sexual encounter with a male student in his dorm room was filmed and put online.

“Tyler Clementi was subjected to an unconscionable violation of privacy, but that conduct was already criminal and prohibited by every college in America,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “For decades, colleges have used vague, broad harassment codes to silence even the most innocuous speech on campus. The proposed law requires universities to police even more student speech under a hopelessly vague standard that will be a disaster for open debate and discourse on campus. And all this in response to student behavior that was already illegal.”

Balancing free-speech rights with the desire to protect students from abuse, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that harassment can be banned only if it is “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” The bill removes the requirement that the behavior be objectively offensive.

The loss of this crucial “reasonable person” standard means that those most interested in silencing viewpoints they don’t like will effectively determine what speech should be banned from campus. Unconstitutional definitions of “harassment” have already provided the most commonly abused rationale justifying censorship, having been applied to a student magazine at Tufts University that published true if unflattering facts about Islam, a Brandeis professor who used an epithet in order to explain its origins and condemn its use as a slur, and even a student at an Indiana college simply for publicly reading a book.

Clementi’s roommate and an alleged accomplice are facing criminal charges for invasion of privacy.

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.”

Yes.

Liberty High bans taped-mouth protest

When is a silent protest too “distracting” for school? asks Greg at Rhymes With Right.

At the ironically named Liberty High in Virginia, administrators told students they couldn’t tape their mouths shut to protest abortion because it was a distraction.

In Tinker v. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court said students had a First Amendment right to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Greg asks:

Now tell me, how does tape over the mouth in any way rise to the standard set in this case — “substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others” — in light of the fact that the tape would be in no way more disruptive than the black armbands in Tinker?

This seems like a fairly clear violation of Tinker. It’s not uncommon for student protesters to tape their mouths. On the annual Day of Silence to protest harassment of gays, students often duct-tape their mouths.

Bullying worries

Bullying and harassment are a serious problem in local schools, say 74 percent of respondents to a Public Agenda survey. However, illegal drugs and lack of respect for teachers raised even more concerns.

Parents were slightly less worried about bullying, drugs and respect.

Physical fighting and cheating in schools are lesser concerns for both the total public (59 percent and 55 percent, respectively) and parents (55 percent for fighting, 48 percent for cheating).

More than a third of Americans say they were bullied in school, but only 8 percent say they were bullied “a lot.”

The 'mean girl' myth

Despite the South Hadley High bullying case, there is no epidemic of “mean girls” attacking other girls, write Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind in a New York Times op-ed.

We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls’ violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years. Major offenses like murder and robbery by girls are at their lowest levels in four decades. Fights, weapons possession, assaults and violent injuries by and toward girls have been plunging for at least a decade.

If one group is more prone to violence, it’s middle-aged men and women, they write, but you don’t hear about “mean middle-agers.”

Of course, Males and Lind are looking at criminal acts, which are easier to track than the typical girl-on-girl harassment, which is mean but not criminal.

Bullies charged after classmate's suicide

Nine Massachusetts teenagers face charges for bullying a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide. Two boys are accused of  statutory rape; a group of Mean Girls are charged with  stalking, criminal harassment and violating the victim’s civil rights.

Insults and threats followed 15-year-old Phoebe Prince almost from her first day at South Hadley High School, targeting the Irish immigrant in the halls, library and in vicious cell phone text messages.

Phoebe, ostracized for having a brief relationship with a popular boy, reached her breaking point and hanged herself after one particularly hellish day in January — a day that, according to officials, included being hounded with slurs and pelted with a beverage container as she walked home from school.

Phoebe’s mother had complained to school officials about the bullying to no avail.

In Massachusetts, public anger was turning from the Mean Girls  — so mean they left vicious comments on Phoebe’s Facebook memorial page — to the teachers who repeatedly failed to protect Phoebe, but were not charged criminally.

District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said Phoebe’s persecution was “common knowledge” at the school, and even witnessed by teachers, who said nothing.

South Hadley parents have formed an anti-bullying group. Massachusetts is considering an anti-bullying law.