The national media has been highlighting incidents of bullying and harassment in schools, and for good reason – statistics show that many children are being bullied, electronically or otherwise.
Federal and state policy and lawmakers are trying to stop bullying of children through policies and legislation, which was the topic of a National Issues session of the Federal Relations Network (FRN) Conference on Monday. NSBA’s General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón Jr. and Jay Worona, general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, outlined to audience how those state and federal actions could affect school boards and districts.
At the federal level, the Obama administration has focused on the topic of bullying and harassment. President Obama “is using the bully pulpit to make connections that are not made under the law,” said Negrón. “That spells untested liability.”
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR), part of the U.S. Department of Education, sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter in October 2010. The letter had several problems, which NSBA responded to, saying it had “fuzzy standards of liability,” said Negron.
Those problems included:
# shifts the “actual knowledge standard” to “knows or should have reasonably known.”
# redefines Title IX requirements from responding to peer harassment in “a reasonable manner” to “eliminating harassment and a hostile environment.”
# requires school districts to publicly label incidents as “harassment,” which could violate students’ privacy rights if they are identified.
State legislatures also have been working in this area, including New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and Louisiana. Worona told the audience about his experience with what is now the Dignity for All Students Act. He said that NYSSBA’s lobbyists respond to all education legislation that includes unfunded mandates: “If it’s unfunded, we don’t like it.”
Worona realized that a more nuanced approach would be required after he met with the head of the New York Civil Liberties, who asked him why the association was opposing the bill. Worona told her the training requirements would cost money and “our districts are broke.” She answered: “But kids are killing themselves.”
That’s not where school boards should be in these types of conversations, he said. “You need to be thinking about what your reaction will be that kind of legislation. Take some steps back to see what it’s all about.”
The OCR held a briefing on the bullying issue in May 2011. NSBA submitted testimony stressing the common goal of preventing and addressing bullying and harassment but cautioned that OCR’s approach was too broad. Federal initiatives can overburden districts when state and local initiatives appear to be working well.
Last September, OCR issued its findings and sent them to the president and Congress. NSBA’s testimony was included in those finding. “People get to see your perspective and why it’s important,” said Negrón. “A one-size-fits all federal mandate is not the answer.”