Finding Hope in a Hopeless Place: Ending School Bullying

March 12, 2012

Imagine a 12-year-old girl in middle school. She doesn’t dress in a girly way, she has a low voice, and she likes playing video games. Other students think she’s not acting the way girls should act, so they trip her and call her “guy,” “fag,” and “transvestite.” The principal knows, but the abusers go unpunished, and she is told not to let the comments bother her. Because she and her parents feel that the school is no longer safe, she changes schools.

At the new school, the other students call her “guy” and “manly,” and one student tells her that she should “go kill herself.” She’s tripped, pushed into lockers multiple times, and pushed into a trash can. She’s sent to counseling once a week for “self-esteem problems,” but the abuse continues because the counselor never confronts the abusers. As a result of the harassment, her grades decline, her self-esteem plummets, and she’s hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.

That is exactly what happened to one of the six plaintiffs in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota. In 2009, the school board adopted a policy instructing teachers to “remain neutral” about sexual orientation, but this effectively operated as a gag order and allowed bullying to occur without challenge. Six students filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school district claiming that there was an “epidemic of anti-gay and gender-based harassment within district schools” that was “rooted in and encouraged by official district-wide policies singling out and denigrating [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people.” This harassment had tragic consequences — eight students from the district committed suicide between 2009 and 2011.

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education investigated the students’ claims and found that sex-based harassment in the district created a “hostile environment.” Last week, the departments, the school district, and the students reached agreement on a comprehensive consent decree that establishes a framework to protect the district’s children from sexual harassment and bullying. AAUW applauds this settlement and hopes that the framework it establishes will serve as a model for all schools dealing with sexual harassment. As AAUW’s research report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School and other reports have established, sexual harassment is a pervasive national problem.

For almost 40 years, Title IX has promised gender equity in education, including protection for students — male and female — from sexual harassment. And yet, the school district’s Title IX coordinator did not monitor or enforce Title IX issues outside the scope of athletics! The Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, two legislative proposals languishing in Congress, would require educators to address bullying and harassment in schools. Take actioncontact Congress and urge them to pass these laws.

One resource to help students and parents is the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund. LAF has worked for decades to combat sex discrimination. LAF’s initiatives include community and campus outreach programs, a resource library and online advocacy tools, a Legal Resource Referral Network, and various research reports. LAF also offers the Title IX Compliance: Know the Score Program in a Box, which provides resources and detailed plans to help members investigate whether schools in their communities are in compliance with the law.

As we move toward Title IX’s 40th birthday later this year, AAUW will keep strongly supporting the law and fighting to protect the equal treatment of all students. No student should go to school afraid.

By:   |   March 12, 2012

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