School Bullying:

Extent of Legal Protections for Vulnerable Groups Needs to Be More Fully Assessed

GAO-12-349: Published: May 29, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 7, 2012.

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Linda M. Calbom
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What GAO Found

School bullying is a serious problem, and research shows that it can have detrimental outcomes for victims, including adverse psychological and behavioral outcomes. According to four nationally representative surveys conducted from 2005 to 2009, an estimated 20 to 28 percent of youth, primarily middle and high school-aged youths, reported they had been bullied during the survey periods. However, differences in definitions and questions posed to youth respondents make it difficult to discern trends and affected groups. For example, the surveys did not collect demographic information by sexual orientation or gender identity. The Departments of Education (Education) and Health and Human Services (HHS) are partially addressing the issue of inconsistent definitions by collaborating with other federal departments and subject matter experts to develop a uniform definition of bullying that can be used for research purposes. However, gaps in knowledge about the extent of bullying of youths in key demographic groups remain.

According to Education, as of April 2012, 49 states have adopted school bullying laws. The laws in the 8 states that GAO reviewed vary in who is covered and the requirements placed on state agencies and school districts. For example, 6 of the states cover a mix of different demographic groups, referred to as protected classes, such as race and sex or gender, in their bullying laws, while 2 states do not include any protected classes. With respect to school districts, each of the 6 districts GAO studied adopted policies that, among other things, prohibit bullying and describe the potential consequences for engaging in the behavior. Also, school district officials told GAO that they developed approaches to prevent and respond to bullying. For example, several school officials said they implemented a prevention-oriented framework to promote positive school cultures. Both state and local officials expressed concerns about various issues, including how best to address incidents that occur outside of school.

Federal civil rights laws can be used to provide protections against bullying in certain circumstances, but certain vulnerable groups are not covered and therefore have no recourse at the federal level. For example, federal agencies lack jurisdiction under civil rights statutes to pursue discrimination cases based solely on socioeconomic status or sexual orientation. While some state civil rights laws provide protections to victims of bullying that go beyond federal law, federal complainants whose cases are dismissed for lack of jurisdiction are not always informed about the possibility of pursuing claims at the state level.

Three federal departments—Education, HHS, and the Department of Justice (Justice)—have established coordinated efforts to carry out research and broadly disseminate information on bullying to the public, including establishment of a central website and an informational campaign to raise awareness about bullying. In addition to these efforts, Education has issued information about how federal civil rights laws can be used to address bullying of protected classes of youths and is conducting a comprehensive study of state bullying laws and how selected school districts are implementing them. However, no similar information is being gathered on state civil rights laws and procedures that could be helpful in assessing the adequacy of legal protections against school bullying.

Why GAO Did This Study

Millions of youths are estimated to be subject to bullying in U.S. schools. GAO was asked to address (1) what is known about the prevalence of school bullying and its effects on victims, (2) approaches selected states and local school districts are taking to combat school bullying, (3) legal options federal and selected state governments have in place when bullying leads to allegations of discrimination, and (4) key federal agencies’ coordination efforts to combat school bullying. GAO reviewed research on the prevalence and effects on victims; analyzed state bullying laws, and school district bullying policies; and interviewed officials in 8 states and 6 school districts. States were selected based on various characteristics, including student enrollment, and their definitions of bullying. Also, GAO reviewed selected relevant federal and state civil rights laws, and interviewed officials from Education, HHS, and Justice.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Education compile information about state civil rights laws and procedures that relate to bullying, and inform complainants about state legal options; Education, HHS, and Justice develop information about bullied demographic groups in their surveys; and assess whether legal protections are adequate for these groups. Education disagreed with our first recommendation and we clarified it to address some of their concerns. Education is considering our second recommendation, agreed with our third, and provided information on efforts related to the last. HHS agreed with our recommendations. Justice did not provide a written response.

For more information, contact Linda Calbom at (206) 287-4809 or calboml@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Education disagreed with our recommendation. The department noted that it does not have jurisdiction, or the appropriate expertise, to interpret and advise on state civil rights laws. Education suggested that state or local agencies are better positioned to provide guidance to the public regarding rights available under state or local laws. We continue to believe that a one-time compilation of state civil rights laws and procedures would be beneficial, and provide a basis, along with other information, for analyzing the overall legal protections that are available for vulnerable demographic groups.

    Recommendation: To allow for a more comprehensive assessment of federal and state efforts to prevent and address bullying, the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Attorney General, as appropriate, should compile information in a one-time study-similar to its study of state bullying laws-about state civil rights laws and procedures, as they may pertain to bullying.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department's Office for Civil Rights now includes language that informs complainants whose complaints are dismissed for lack of jurisdiction that they may have possible recourse under state or local laws. As GAO recommended, this language tracks the language used by the Department of Justice in its dismissal letters. This language will help ensure that individuals are aware of their options to seek legal redress and help direct complainants to state and local agencies the more appropriate entities for issuing guidance on state and local laws.

    Recommendation: In order to better ensure that individuals are aware of their options to seek legal redress, especially in cases where their complaints to Education are not pursued because of a lack of jurisdiction, the Secretary of Education should develop procedures to routinely inform individuals who file complaints of discrimination stemming from bullying about the potential availability of legal options under their state's anti-discrimination laws.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, co-designed by the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, added a series of new questions about bullying to its 2015 survey. In addition to defining bullying, the survey includes a question about the perceived reason for bullying, for example, because of race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or appearance. These and other questions are in addition to a question about hate-related speech that has appeared in previous surveys.

    Recommendation: To address gaps in knowledge about targets of bullying and discrimination, the Secretaries of Education and HHS and the Attorney General should work together to develop information in their future surveys of youths' health and safety issues on the extent to which youths in various vulnerable demographic groups are bullied.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: HHS added a couple of questions about sexual orientation to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) survey. The information gleaned from these questions can be used to assess the extent to which youths of various sexual orientations are bullied. Additionally, to further the gathering of systematic data on bullying, the CDC developed a tool which includes, among other things, a uniform definition of bullying and data elements that can assist schools and communities in understanding when bullying occurs.

    Recommendation: To address gaps in knowledge about targets of bullying and discrimination, the Secretaries of Education and HHS and the Attorney General should work together to develop information in their future surveys of youths' health and safety issues on the extent to which youths in various vulnerable demographic groups are bullied.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In addition to steps taken by the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice to assess the extent to which legal protections against bullying exist for vulnerable demographic groups, the Department of Education (Education) has focused specifically on steps to ensure the safety of transgender students. In response to reports that transgender students feel unsafe and experience verbal and physical harassment or assault in school, and that students may perform worse academically when they are harassed, Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, in May 2016, jointly issued a Dear Colleague Letter about transgender students' rights and schools' legal obligations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. During the same month, OCR also issued a guide of examples of policies and emerging practices that some schools use to support transgender students.

    Recommendation: To aid policymakers and program administrators at the federal and state levels in understanding more comprehensively what is being done to address bullying and discrimination, the Secretaries of Education and HHS and the Attorney General, in conjunction with the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, should assess the extent to which legal protections against bullying exist for vulnerable demographic groups. Such an assessment, to be comprehensive, should make use of information federal agencies have already compiled on state bullying laws and federal civil rights laws together with information from our recommendations above to compile information on state civil rights laws and collect more information on demographic groups in federal surveys of youth health and safety issues.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, through a contract with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, published a volume titled Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice (2016). Among other things, the volume includes a discussion of anti-bullying laws and policies that provide an enumerated list of protected or vulnerable groups, including litigation efforts. Additionally, in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a research brief on enumerated anti-bullying laws or policies--policies that list the traits or characteristics of students who have historically been targets of bullying. This resource was designed to help local education agency (school district) staff make decisions and implement policy that protect all students.

    Recommendation: To aid policymakers and program administrators at the federal and state levels in understanding more comprehensively what is being done to address bullying and discrimination, the Secretaries of Education and HHS and the Attorney General, in conjunction with the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, should assess the extent to which legal protections against bullying exist for vulnerable demographic groups. Such an assessment, to be comprehensive, should make use of information federal agencies have already compiled on state bullying laws and federal civil rights laws together with information from our recommendations above to compile information on state civil rights laws and collect more information on demographic groups in federal surveys of youth health and safety issues.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, co-designed by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, added a series of new questions about bullying to its 2015 survey. In addition to defining bullying, the survey includes a question about the perceived reason for bullying, for example, because of race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or appearance. These and other questions are in addition to a question about hate-related speech that has appeared in previous surveys.

    Recommendation: To address gaps in knowledge about targets of bullying and discrimination, the Secretaries of Education and HHS and the Attorney General should work together to develop information in their future surveys of youths' health and safety issues on the extent to which youths in various vulnerable demographic groups are bullied.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, through a contract with the Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, published a volume titled Preventing Bullying Through Science, Policy, and Practice (2016). Among other things, the volume includes a discussion of anti-bullying laws and policies that provide an enumerated list of protected or vulnerable groups, including litigation efforts. Additionally, the department's Civil Rights Division and the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights issued a Dear Colleague Letter about transgender students' rights and schools' legal obligations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Lastly, in 2016, the department announced an interagency initiative to combat religious discrimination, including bullying in schools. The inaugural roundtable took place in March 2016 and, according to agency officials, other roundtables are planned across the nation.

    Recommendation: To aid policymakers and program administrators at the federal and state levels in understanding more comprehensively what is being done to address bullying and discrimination, the Secretaries of Education and HHS and the Attorney General, in conjunction with the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, should assess the extent to which legal protections against bullying exist for vulnerable demographic groups. Such an assessment, to be comprehensive, should make use of information federal agencies have already compiled on state bullying laws and federal civil rights laws together with information from our recommendations above to compile information on state civil rights laws and collect more information on demographic groups in federal surveys of youth health and safety issues.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

 

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