Know your child’s civil rights related to harassment within educational settings

Several laws focus on young people’s rights to education that is free from discrimination and harassment.

Many parents across the country are concerned about recent reports of young people being bullied, harassed and assaulted because of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation and disabilities. Being the target of these kinds of behaviors can have serious impacts on the health and well-being of young people. These experiences can increase their feelings of anger, loneliness and powerlessness, as well as put them at higher risk for depression and anxiety. When kids don’t feel safe at school, it can also result in lowered academic performances and higher rates of school absenteeism.

It’s important for parents and other caring adults to have a good understanding of laws that are designed to protect the civil rights of kids within educational settings. The United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces the laws that are designed to help ensure that students receive educational experiences that are free from harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex and disability. Harassment can involve acts such as name-calling, written or graphic statements (including messages on cell phones and the Internet), and conduct that is physically threatening or humiliating. Harassing conduct can create a hostile environment that may limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or opportunities offered by a school (or any educational institution that receives federal funding). Because forms of discriminatory harassment have sometimes been labeled as “bullying,” the OCR sent a letter to all school districts in 2010 about the importance of distinguishing between harassment and bullying. That letter can be a helpful resource for parents and other adults who want to deepen their understanding about these distinctions and learn more about the responsibilities of schools for taking immediate and appropriate action to address situations involving harassment.

Following is information on laws that are designed to protect the rights of young people within educational settings related to race, color, national origin, sex and disabilities:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. This law prohibits racial harassment, which includes acts such as racially motivated physical attacks, racial slurs, racial epithets scrawled on school walls, and organized hate activity directed at students. Title VI also focuses on schools’ obligations to take affirmative steps to ensure that students who are English language learners can meaningfully participate in programs and services and to provide information to their parents in a language they can understand. The OCR provides a fact sheet designed for parents with limited English proficiency (available in a variety of languages), which describes what they should expect in terms of how schools and school districts communicate with them about these issues.
  • Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 is the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities. Title IX protects students, employees, applicants for admission and employment, and other persons from all forms of sex discrimination – including discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression that doesn’t conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity. In addition to sending school districts a letter on the importance of distinguishing between harassment and bullying, the OCR has sent school districts letters focused on understanding sexual harassment and sexual violence and the role of schools’ Title IX coordinators (the designated employee who coordinates efforts to comply with and carry out Title IX responsibilities).
  • OCR enforces two laws that prohibit discrimination based on disability: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These laws apply to all programs of a school, including academics, extracurricular activities and athletics (including those that occur off campus) and prohibit acts of discrimination such as lack of access to educational programs and facilities and denial of a free and appropriate public elementary and secondary school education. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services sent a letter to all school districts stressing that the bullying of a student with a disability that results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefits constitutes a denial of a free appropriate public education under the law and must be remedied. Parents of students who are being targeted by bullying behaviors (whether or not the bullying is related to a student’s disability) may find this letter to be a helpful tool for understanding the obligations of schools. In addition, the OCR provides questions and answers related to disability discrimination under Section 504 and Title II, as well as links to a variety of disability discrimination resources.

Most schools emphasize the importance of providing climates in which students feel welcomed, valued and safe – and it’s important for parents and young people to have a good understanding of the laws that uphold the rights that students have to take part in settings that are free from harassment and other bias-based behaviors. If you ever need to take the step of contacting a school (or other educational setting) to talk about issues that a young person is experiencing related to harassment, having a good understanding of your child’s rights will better prepare you to work in partnership with school staff to address the situation. Information at the OCR website can provide valuable background material for entering into a conversation with a school to ensure that young people have positive and safe educational experiences.

Michigan State University Extension provides a variety of resources related to helping parents and other adults understand issues of bullying, bias and harassment in the lives of young people. Among these is an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and inclusive settings. In addition, MSU Extension offers resources and programs designed to help communities explore a variety of diversity and multiculturalism issues.


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