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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Due to significant concerns from various groups, Congress has not yet reauthorized the child nutrition bill set to expire on September 30 but instead has approved a short-term extension of it. Congress will then likely revisit reauthorization during the lame duck period after the November elections.

As occurred with the $10 billion education jobs bill in July that saved nearly 300,000 education jobs, passage of the child nutrition bill requires offsets to other programs to make it politically feasible. The Senate approved a bill (S. 3307) in August to authorize $4.5 billion for child nutrition programs over 10 years and offset the increased spending by rolling back a scheduled 2013 increase for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (i.e. food stamps). To express opposition to this offset to food stamps, 50 House Democrats wrote a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urging her not to introduce the Senate bill and instead to have the House vote on its own version of the bill, without cuts to the food stamps program. As a result, the House proposed its own bill (H.R. 5504) which would authorize $8 billion over 10 years, and was passed by the House Education and Labor Committee in July but has since stalled because this bill did not identify any offsets. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the House bill would add $6.5 billion to the deficit over the course of 10 years.

Not only does the House bill pose as unfavorable in its effect on the federal deficit, it is currently opposed by national organizations representing school superintendents and school board members. “The bill does not provide sufficient resources to cover the local cost of providing the federal free and reduced-priced lunches and breakfasts,” stated the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of Great City Schools, and the National School Boards Association in a letter to Congress. “Moreover, the bill adds multiple new requirements while failing to reimburse these additional costs as well.”

Both the House and Senate bills are noteworthy for a few reasons. First, they would provide more funding to school lunches, beyond changes for inflation, for the first time since the 1970s. And second, both bills would establish federal nutrition standards for the first time for food served outside the school cafeteria, such as in vending machines and at school-sponsored activities. Special exceptions would be made for school fundraising activities unless they were conducted through school stores, snack bars, or a la carte sales. The House bill would also require a study on the marketing of food and beverages in elementary and secondary schools, including on educational materials, vending machines, and score boards.

Despite opposition to the bill from various sides, the Obama administration is committed to enacting a new law this year, particularly since child nutrition is one of the First Lady’s priorities. First Lady Michelle Obama is urging swift passage of the reauthorization bill in order to make improvements to the US Schools Challenge, a program that requires schools to meet higher standards for the food sold in schools, disseminate nutrition information, and encourage students to participate in physical education programs. Mrs. Obama has also been heavily promoting the “Let’s Move” campaign, which, in her words to local children at the launch event September 8 in New Orleans, LA, seeks to “end childhood obesity in a generation, so that kids born today grow up at a healthy weight.” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has also made public appearances to promote the bill, making the bill a likely priority during the lame duck session after the November elections. NASSP will keep you updated on how movement of this bill unfolds.

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The importance of writing in all content areas was the main topic of discussion at a joint congressional briefing on literacy and instructional leadership hosted by NASSP and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in October. The event was also an opportunity for senior staff of the House Education and Labor Committee to highlight the Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation (LEARN) Act and its inclusion in a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Principal Patrick Field and English language arts teacher John Rudolf from Franklin Towne Charter High School in Philadelphia, PA, shared their early successes in implementing a schoolwide writing initiative at the 2010 MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough School. While test scores on the state’s reading exam had dramatically increased in only a few years, Field explained that his “aha” moment occurred in 2007 when he found a science essay written by one of the school’s top students that included no punctuation or capital letters yet had received 9 points out of 10. When he asked the teacher to explain the grade, he was told “we don’t teach writing, we’re grading for content.” Rudolf also lamented that many students were willing to take a zero on an assignment rather than write a paper.

Explaining that the state’s content standards were often confusing and repetitive, Field worked with his entire staff to develop Power Standards for the entire school to boil down to the essentials what it means for every student to be college-ready with an emphasis on writing. Rudolf discussed the roadblocks they faced from the math teachers and physical education teachers on staff who didn’t want to assign writing assignments in their classes. He and the other English teachers led weekly professional development sessions with the content area teachers, but he said it took a strong administrator who recognized the problem and was committed to finding a solution to get to the point where every class at the school now requires writing. Scores on writing tests have increased from 64% in 2007 to 76% in 2010, and Rudolf explained that the next step will be to increase the rigor of those assignments and increase scores even further.

The panel also included, Anne Gere, a researcher at the University of Michigan and author of Taking Initiative on Writing: a Guide for Instructional Leaders, who discussed the benefits of writing for student learning in all subject areas. She noted that most teachers, including English teachers, receive very little preparation in how to teach writing so professional development is the key to success in implementing a schoolwide literacy initiative. Gere also lauded the Breaking Ranks Field Guide for Leading Change for giving principals a structure to implement change in their schools. Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, summarized Principles of Learning: a Foundation for Transforming K-12 Education, which was recently released by a coalition of content area associations. The first principle states that “Being literate is at the heart of learning in every subject area.”

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