Schools that receive federal funds have a legal obligation to protect students from harassment and bullying. This protection must be against the harassment and bullying of their students based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sex and sexual orientation (42 USC § 2000d et seq; 29USC § 794; 34 CFR Pt, 104; 20 USC §§ 1681-1688; 34 CGR Pt. 106; 28 CFR Pt. 54). In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination by public entities regardless of whether they receive federal funds (42 USC §12131 - 12134; 28 CFR Pt. 35; U.S Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Dear Colleague Letter (Oct. 21, 2014).
Schools that fail to protect their children from harassment, especially for racial harassment, can be held liable for the violation of a student’s civil rights and can be held liable for a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The title under this act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs and activities that are operated by the recipients of federal funds. these recipients include public schools (42 USC § 2000d; Zeno v. Pine Plains Cent. Sch. List., 702 F.3d 655 (2012); T.E. v. Pine Bush CSD, 59 F. Supp.3d 332 (2014)). This mean that schools, and school officials are to protect, and properly reprimand students who continuously harass other students because of their racial background. Examples like yelling racial slurs, and making derogatory remarks toward one’s ethnicity or culture, must not be tolerated, and students found guilty of committing such acts, should be disciplined by school officials accordingly. A failure by the school to properly deal with such students, and ensure that the victim of harassment can attend all his or her classes without fear of further harassment, displayed a gross negligence by the school, who can be held financially responsible for damages.
Schools also have a responsibility to guard against harassment and bullying based on a disability. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act both strictly prohibit discrimination of the basis of a disability. In turn, schools have a duty to ensure that all students with disabilities are not subject to hostile environments, and are treated equally. This means that it is the schools obligation to ensure their equal ability to participate in class activities, as well as benefit from the same services, activities, and opportunities that are offered to other students. For example, the school may not host a school activity that is in a location that is not wheelchair accessible. Schools also may not have a curriculum that is not possible for a disabled person to pass. For example, many school districts have a physical activity class as a requirement in their curriculum. If a student has a physical challenge, the school cannot say that the student cannot participate, and therefore cannot pass the class. They must instead adapt for the student’s challenges to allow the student to participate and be included with the rest of his or her peers.
One important law against harassment is Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments. This title provides that no person shall be excluded from the participation of, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under an educational program or educational entity that receives financial assistance (20 USC § 1681 et seq.). To ensure that this title is upheld, school districts must designate at least one employee as a Title IX coordinator (34 CFR § 106.8(a); U.S. Dep’t of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Dear Colleague Letter, (April 24, 2015). This designated investigator must thoroughly investigate any complaint filed that alleges violations of Title IX. Also noted is that each school district must provide all students and staff with the name of their Title IX coordinator, as well as their office address, and telephone number.
Though Title IX was enacted in 1972, it also covers a topic that is new in U.S Society: the protection of transgender rights. The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S Department of Education has issued a “Dear Colleague” letter, explaining that Title IX, though put in action over 40 years ago, prohibits discrimination based on a student’s gender identity, which includes a student’s transgender status (U.S Dep’t of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Dear Colleague Letter (May 13, 2016)). This protection also covers issues of sexual harassment from both students, as well as teachers.
Though Title IX of the 1972 Educational amendments covers students from issues of harassment, it is not the only protection they have. School districts may also face liability for student on student sexual harassment under section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1876 (42 USC § 1983).
In all, Federal Law strictly prevents and prohibits students from harassment based on their race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, sex or sexual orientation. However, it is up to the school districts and their designee to uphold the protective rights of students enrolled in their schools. If they fail to uphold these laws, they can be subject to serious liability.
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