Education Department officials are threatening school principals with lawsuits if they fail to monitor and curb students’ lunchtime chat and evening Facebook time for expressing ideas and words that are deemed by Washington special-interest groups to be harassment of some students.
There has only been muted opposition to this far-reaching policy among the professionals and advocates in the education sector, most of whom are heavily reliant on funding and support from top-level education officials. The normally government-averse tech-sector is also playing along, and on Mar. 11, Facebook declared that it was “thrilled” to work with White House officials to foster government oversight of teens’ online activities.
The only formal opposition has come from the National School Board Association, which declined to be interviewed by The DC.
The agency’s threats, which are delivered in a so-called “Dear Colleague” letter,” have the support of White House officials, including President Barack Obama, who held a Mar. 10 White House meeting to promote the initiative as a federal “anti-bullying” policy.
The letter says federal officials have reinterpreted the civil-rights laws that require school principals to curb physical bullying, as well as racist and sexist speech, that take place within school boundaries. Under the new interpretation, principals and their schools are legally liable if they fail to curb “harassment” of students, even if it takes place outside the school, on Facebook or in private conversation among a few youths.
“Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet… it does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents [but] creates a hostile environment … [which can] limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school,” according to the far-reaching letter, which was completed Oct. 26 by Russlynn Ali, who heads the agency’s civil rights office.
School officials will face lawsuits even when they are ignorant about students’ statements, if a court later decides they “reasonably should have known” about their students’ conduct, said the statement.
Following the discovery of “harassment,” officials may have to require mandatory training of students and their families, according to the Ali letter. “The school may need to provide training or other interventions not only for the perpetrators, but also for the larger school community, to ensure that all students, their families, and school staff can recognize harassment if it recurs and know how to respond… [and] provide additional services to the student who was harassed in order to address the effects of the harassment,” said the letter.
Facebook is developing new features that will make it harder for principals to miss episodes of online “harassment,” and so will increase the likelihood of government action against the teenage users of Facebook and other social-media. “We’re adding a unique feature, developed with safety experts, that lets people also report content to someone in their support system (like a parent or teacher) who may be able to address the issue more directly,’ Facebook declared Mar. 11. “It is our hope that features like this will help not only remove the offensive content but also help people get to the root of the problem,” the company statement declared.
The department’s re-interpretation expands legal risks for schools beyond those set by the Supreme Court in a 1999 decision, said a Dec. 7 NSBA statement. The court decision, which interprets several federal laws, says schools are liable for harassment that school officials know about and that “effectively bars” a student’s access to an educational benefit.
The remedies being pushed by administration officials will also violate students’ and families’ privacy rights, disregard student’s constitutional free-speech rights, spur expensive lawsuits against cash-strapped schools, and constrict school official’ ability to flexibly use their own anti-bullying policies to manage routine and unique issues, said the NSBA letter. The government has not responded to the NSBA letter.
The leading advocate for the expanded rules is Kevin Jennings, who heads the Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Jennings founded the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network advocacy group, and raised at least $100,000 for the Obama campaign in 2008, according to Public Citizen, a left-of-center advocacy group. In an September 2010 interview on the government’s StopBullying.gov website, Jennings said that “in a truly safe school … students feel like they belong, they are valued, they feel physically and emotionally safe.”
Ken Trump, a Cleveland-based school-safety consultant, says the administration is so determined to focus on teens that it is asking Congress for $365 million to conduct bullying-related school surveys in 2012. In 2011, the administration ended a program that gave roughly $300 million per year to states to counter physical violence and drug-abuse in schools.
The primary purpose behind the administration’s initiative is to “create a social and political climate where it is impossible to express conservative moral beliefs” about sexuality, even when research data shows those beliefs help many people live prosperous and happy lives, said Laurie Higgins, the school-advocacy chief of three-person Illinois Family Institute, in Carol Stream, Ill. Everyday experience and careful research show that children are most likely to prosper when they’re raised by their parents, not by school officials and D.C.-based special-interests, she said.
Children do not have any right to bully other kids, gay or straight, to hurt them, taunt or tease them, but they do have a right to speak their minds, and champion their beliefs, said Higgins. Kids learn to treat each other with respect, especially when they and their peers have the ability to hold each other responsible for good, bad or trivial actions, she said.
One of the better things about Facebook, said Higgins, is that it promotes responsible behavior by requiring teens to identify themselves with their real names and pictures. But the kids’ ability to mature into adults will be stymied if the federal government, special-interests and school officials intervene in kids’ conversations about girls and boys, sports and fashion, studies and music, whenever they offer judgements or facts that are disliked by influential political advocates, such as Jennings’ GLSEN, Higgins said. “Kids will be inhibited if they fear their moral reasoning will be seen by others as criminal,” she said.
GLSEN’s advocates strongly support the federal initiative. The Department’s October “guidelines are thorough, comprehensive and list examples in current law to support each provision…. When it comes to bias-based bullying in particular, we have to be willing to name the problem if we want to protect all of our students,” said a Dec. 21 GLSEN statement. Almost 90 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and students “experienced harassment in the past year because of their sexual orientation,” according to a 2009 GLSEN survey of more than 7,000 students, said the statement.
Advocates for gays and lesbians say teens who identify as gay or lesbian are four times as likely as normal kids to kill themselves, and they cite multiple examples of teen-suicides following anti-gay statements or physical violence.
The anti-harassment legislation is frequently supported by the ACLU and its state affiliates, partly because ACLU officials also support the goal of government-supported diversity. In contrast, the libertarian Foundation for Individual Rights In Education, or FIRE, opposes anti-harassment bills as threats to free-speech. On Feb. 15, its website presented arguments against a pending bullying-related bill in Congress, dubbed the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act. The draft act “is redundant, it replaces the clear definition of harassment with a vague, speech-restrictive definition that conflicts with Supreme Court precedent, and it treats adult college students like children who need special laws,” said FIRE’s statement.
This month, Higgins’ side won an expensive free-speech victory when a federal appeals court in Chicago upheld a token award of $25 dollars each to two students who were punished by school officials in Naperville, Ill., for wearing unapproved t-shirts following a school event that was intended to promote acceptance of homosexuality. The “Day of Silence” event at the school was organized by GLSEN. The two students’ shirts carried the message “Be Happy, Not Gay,” and were worn on a day declared to be a “Day of Truth,” which was organized by a national conservative group that opposes GLSEN’s goals.
“[A] school that permits advocacy of the rights of homosexual students cannot be allowed to stifle criticism of homosexuality,” said the appeal court’s decision, authored by Judge Richard Posner. “The school argued (and still argues) that banning ‘Be Happy, Not Gay’ was just a matter of protecting the ‘rights’ of the students against whom derogatory comments are directed. But people in our society do not have a legal right to prevent criticism of their beliefs or even their way of life,” said the ruling.