Yes. There are federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on:
• National origin (meaning ancestry or ethnic background)
• Disability (physical, mental or learning)
For a good description of school districts’ obligations under the federal civil rights laws, read the guidelines on harassment and bullying published by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (known as “OCR” for short). OCR’s guidelines apply to all schools that receive federal funds. This covers all public schools, but not private schools.
Student-on-student bullying may also trigger a school district’s responsibilities under the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits discrimination in public schools based on many of the same characteristics protected by the civil rights laws.
Here are some examples of bullying that public schools may be obligated to address under federal law:
• Racial harassment: Students are putting racially offensive notes in African-American students’ lockers and notebooks, using racial slurs, threatening African-American students who try to sit near them in the cafeteria, tripping them in the hallways, and sometimes provoking fights with African-American students.
• National origin harassment: Students are drawing anti-Semitic graffiti, including swastikas, on bathroom stalls, desks and Jewish students’ notebooks. Students use anti-Semitic slurs when talking with Jewish students, try to shove coins in Jewish students’ mouths, and threaten to beat up Jewish students unless they hand over some money.
• Sexual harassment: Students are targeting a new girl in school, routinely calling her a “slut,” spreading rumors about her sexual behavior, sending her threatening text messages, grabbing her buttocks or breasts, and tripping and pushing her in the halls.
• Gender-based harassment: Students are targeting a student they believe is gay, taunting him with anti-gay slurs to his face and on social networking sites, threatening him and physically assaulting him, and ridiculing him because he’s in the drama club, is effeminate, and wears clothing that isn’t typical for boys.
• Disability harassment: Several students repeatedly call another student with a learning disability “stupid” and “retard” at lunch and on the school bus. They often tackle the student, hit him on the head with their binders, and steal items from his locker.
Some state laws also protect your child from discriminatory harassment. In fact, some state laws prohibit a broader range of discrimination than the federal civil rights laws. For example, in addition to prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and disability, some state laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of:
• sexual orientation
• gender identity or expression
• personal appearance
Student-on-student bullying may also trigger a school district’s responsibilities under state constitutions.