Four Possible Paths
This page provides parents with insight to assist them in achieving an effective resolution of the more serious or chronic situations where their child is being repeatedly bullied or harassed.
While many parents and students become frustrated with the response of the principal when serious or chronic situations are reported, too often they may think that nothing more can be done or they do not know how to proceed. Depending on your child’s “status,” there are four possible paths:
- If your child is within a protected class–race, religion, national origin, sexual minority or orientation, disabilities–or is being treated badly because of the perspective of being in a protected class, this constitutes discriminatory harassment under civil rights laws.
- Complaints on this basis can be filed with your district. You will have to consult with your district, possibly on their website, to determine how to file a complaint. In many, but not all states, it is also possible to file a complaint with a state agency. Many times, it is necessary to go through a district process before you appeal the complaint to the state. In addition, a complaint can be filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
- If your child is experiencing sexual harassment, this constitutes a violation of Title IX.
- Complaints on this basis can be filed with the district. Look for the link on your district website for Title IX Coordinator. In many states, this can also be appealed to a state agency. These complaints can also be filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
- If your child has disabilities and is on an IEP or Section 504 Plan, the school is required to address the hurtful conduct in a comprehensive manner within the context of an IEP or 504 meeting.
- If your child is being persistently treated badly and is demonstrating mental health symptoms, it will likely be possible for you to obtain a mental health diagnosis associated with the trauma they are experiencing. Then, under Section 504, your child likely should be considered to have a “disability.” If the bullying of your child on any basis is interfering with your child’s ability to receive an education, then this constitutes a violation of Section 504 and must be addressed with a Section 504 Plan. The Section 504 Plan may only address the concerns associated with the bullying your child is experiencing. This is likely the best strategy to address persistent and harmful bullying of a student who is not a member of a protected class.
Most school leaders think that they are supposed to respond to all hurtful situations under their state’s anti-bullying statute. You can find your state’s anti-bullying statute. Go to your state’s page.
Under these statutes, generally the only thing principals are required to do is investigate to determine whether discipline is warranted. Principals are under strong pressure not to suspend students. They will only respond if there has been a significant disruption at the school. So generally, unless this has even a really serious incident, a report to the school that your child is being bullied is responded to in this manner, “This is not bullying, so there is nothing I can do.”
Most bullying is persistent or chronic hurtful acts. Your child is being treated badly in honor ways, but almost every day. This persistent hurtful behavior can cause profound harm. Another possibility is that the hurtful behavior is pervasive–many students who are within one protected class are being treated badly.
If your child is (or could be) within a protected class, and is being treated badly in a serious OR persistent/chronic manner and this is interfering with your child’s learning and ability to participate at school, and the school knows or should know, the school is required to investigate to determine whether a hostile environment exists for your child. Not whether discipline is warranted.
Schools are supposed to follow different regulations in these cases. Go back to the page with your state’s Anti-Bullying statute. Look down for the question that asks “Do (name of state) anti-bullying laws and regulations include protections for specific groups? Note at the bottom the link that reads: Find out when bullying may be a civil rights violation.
Under federal civil rights laws, if there is interference with your child’s learning or participation in school activities, the school is required to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to stop the harassment and prevent it from recurring (more than a suspension), and remedy the harm to your child, and correct aspects of the environment that are supporting this hurtful conduct.
If your child is on an IEP or 504 Plan, the development of a plan incorporating these reasonably calculated steps must take place in an IEP or 504 TEAM meeting–with you as part of the team! The plan should be set forth in your child’s IEP or 504 Plan under Supplemental Aids and Supports. If you child also needs support in developing personal relationship skills, these should be included in Functional Objectives.
Helpful Documents and Resources
These documents will be of assistance to your understanding. These documents can help you to document what is happening and file a complaint independently. These documents can also be used by organizations that are assisting parents with young people who are being bullied or harassed.
- Is Your Child with Disabilities Being Bullied or Harassed? A Parent’s Guide for Advocacy. This document outlines specifically what schools are required to do if a student with disabilities, who is on an IEP or a 504 or should be on a 504, is that student is being bullied on any basis and this is interfering with their learning or participation. This document is being rewritten.
- Is Your Protected Class Child Being Bullied or Harassed? A Parent’s Guide for Advocacy. This document is being rewritten.
- Documentation Guide. This document that outlines what information should be gathered to make an effective complaint and how to write that complaint.
- Mental Health Concerns. If your child is experiencing significant mental health challenges, it may be possible to obtain a diagnosis of Specified Trauma and Stressors-Related Disorder (a form of PTSD). With such a diagnosis, or a diagnosis of any other mental health challenge, your child is considered under Section 504 to have a disability and the bullying or harassment of your child must be comprehensively addressed in a 504 Team meeting. This document can also be provided to a medical or mental health provider to increase their insight.
- Positive Resolutions. This document outlines what currently is not working and what schools should be doing to create positive change.
US Department of Education
These documents provide an extensive background into the civil rights requirements. Note that every document states repeatedly that in a situation of possible hostile environment where the serious, persistent, or pervasive hurtful conduct of a student or students appears to be interfering with the right of a protected class student to receive an education, the school must conduct a prompt, unbiased, and comprehensive investigation.
If a hostile environment is found, the school is required to take steps reasonably calculated to stop the harassment (more than a disciplinary action), prevent retaliation, remedy the harm to the target, and correct the hostile environment.
If a student has disabilities and is being harassed based on those disabilities or bullied on any basis and this is interfering with the student’s learning, this situation must be addressed in an IEP or 504 Team meeting. This requires a comprehensive evaluation conducted by an educator who has received training and is knowledgable about the concerns of discriminatory harassment and the required actions to address this.
- How to File a Discrimination Complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. Given the current administration, I am not sure how effective this will be. However, the staff who handle these complaints in the field offices have not changed, so this could be an appropriate path to consider.
- StopBullying.Gov. This is a page on the federal government’s StopBullying.Gov website.
- Dear Colleague Letter: Harassment and Bullying (2010). This is a very important Dear Colleague Letter that provides guidance to schools on the approach they need to take in situations where bullying is discriminatory discrimination.
- Dear Colleague Letter Bullying of Students With Disabilities (2013). Office for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services provides guidance for students covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). OSERS clarifying that when bullying of a student with a disability results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit under IDEA, the school must remedy the problem, regardless of whether the bullying was based on the student’s disability.
- Dear Colleague Letter on Bullying of Students with Disabilities (2014). This very important document outlines how the discriminatory harassment of students with disabilities or the bullying of any student with disabilities on any basis that is interfering with the student’s right to receive an education must be addressed in a Section 504 meeting.
- Parent and Educator Resource Guide to Section 504 in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools (2016). From this document Page 32: “Section 504 prohibits disability-based harassment by peers that is sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s education programs and activities (in other words, creates a hostile environment). When a school district knows or reasonably should know of possible disability-based harassment, it must take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. If an investigation reveals that the harassment created a hostile environment, the recipient must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent the harassment from recurring, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”
- Checklist for a Comprehensive Approach to Addressing Harassment (2015). This is a great list of things schools and districts should be doing to prevent and respond to harassment.
- Title VI and Title IX Religious Discrimination in Schools and Colleges (2013). Explains how despite the fact that religion is not included in the civil rights statutes, the Office for Civil Rights addresses harassment based on religion. In Oregon, religion is specifically included in the statute.
- Dear Colleague Letter Prohibited Disability Harassment (2000). Lists a good set of actions schools should be taking.
- Title IX Resource Guide for Title IX Coordinators (2015). Note on page 15 this addresses sexual harassment.
- Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance (2001). Note starting on page 5 Factors Used to Evaluate Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment. Note also starting on page 15, Response to Student or Parent Reports of Harassment; Response to Direct Observation of Harassment by a Responsible Employee. This sets forth the extensive actions required to address sexual harassment. This list of required actions also apply to other protected classes.
- Protecting Students from Harassment and Hate Crime: A Guide for Schools (1999). This is an older document. It is noted as “archived” because some of the material is no longer accurate — this is the material related to sexual orientation/identity. Other guidance on the comprehensive approach schools should be taking is very helpful.
- Racial Incidents and Harassment Against Students (1994). This is an older document addressing racial harassment.