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.