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
(206) 287-4809
calboml@gao.gov

 

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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.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: 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.

    Status: Open

    Comments: Education disagreed with our recommendation. The agency suggested that compiling information about state civil rights laws and procedures would only be useful if kept current, and that undergoing such a time sensitive and costly survey and review of state's civil rights laws would not be an appropriate use of the department's limited resources. 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.

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    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

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) 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 (DOJ) 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: 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

    Status: Open

    Comments: Education agreed with our recommendation that they develop additional information in their surveys about youths in various vulnerable groups who are bullied. The Department is willing to explore the possibility of adding additional demographic information (such as information on sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and religion) to the national data collections that include measures of bullying victimization.

    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

    Status: Open

    Comments: HHS generally agreed with this recommendation to include demographic information of vulnerable groups. HHS reported that the agency continues to work with CDC to enhance Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) System data collection with individual states. HHS and CDC would like to increase the number of states and large urban school districts that include questions about sexual identity and/or sexual contacts in their YRBS questionnaire.

    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

    Status: Open

    Comments: Education cited many of its ongoing efforts to this end. We commend Education on its current efforts as well as other efforts discussed in the report. However, we continue to assert that more information is needed on state civil rights laws as well as about how various demographic groups are affected by bulling. Utilizing all of the information at their disposal, including information we recommend to be collected, Education, HHS, and Justice could work together to assess how well the available laws and resources address areas of need and identify measures that could be taken to help prevent bullying. We believe that it is an important step to assimilate information on resources and laws with research about areas of need in order to address this important issue.

    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

    Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with the recommendation.

    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

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Justice did not provide any written comments.

    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

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Justice did not provide any written comments.

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