Largely in response to the recent spike in publicized tragedies caused by bullying, the Department of Education today issued guidance on protecting students from various kinds of bullying. The guidance, distributed in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter to schools, colleges, and universities, clarifies when bullying in schools may violate federal education anti-discrimination laws and reminds educators of their legal obligation to protect students from harassment due to race, national origin, sex, gender, and disability. The letter also gives examples of harassment and describes how a school should address each case.

This response from the Department of Education follows the introduction of a bill addressing bullying in schools, the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) introduced by Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA). NASSP is one of 70 organizations that support the bill as a member of the Safe Schools Partnership and has strongly advocated for its inclusion in an ESEA reauthorization bill. SSIA is a federal anti-bullying bill that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, and “will require comprehensive anti-bullying policies in our nation’s public schools,” according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

The impetus for this bill is indisputable: according to a 2005 report from GLSEN and Harris Interactive that surveyed more than 3,000 students, nearly two-thirds of middle and high school students (65%) said they had been bullied in school in the past year. Further, according to GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey of more than 6,000 LGBT students nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students (86.4%) said they had been harassed in the past year, and 60.8% said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

Beyond the Department’s letter of guidance released today, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he may urge Congress to introduce legislation specifically to address bullying. To that end, the publication Congressional Quarterly reported that “a key Democrat said he will look at ways to address the issue when Congress takes up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) next year.” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also said the committee would address bullying in future discussions of ESEA reauthorization. Further, members of the House Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Equality Caucus urged the Department of Health and Human Services to focus suicide prevention efforts on the high-risk groups of gay and transgendered youth.

In the coming year, the White House plans to host a conference to “raise awareness and equip young people, parents, educators, coaches and other community leaders with tools to prevent bullying and harassment,” according to a Department of Education press release. “We’ve got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not,” said President Obama. “We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids. Every single young person deserves the opportunity to learn and grow and achieve their potential, without having to worry about the constant threat of harassment.”
NASSP will continue to advocate for the Safe Schools Improvement Act (H.R. 2262/S. 3739) and we urge you to write and/or call your members of Congress to cosponsor this bill.

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