School Climate & Safety

School Bullying: Federal Bill Would Set Mandates for Local Policies, Data

By Evie Blad — January 29, 2015 3 min read
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A bipartisan pair of senators is renewing efforts to pass a federal law that addresses bullying in schools.

U.S. Senators Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Bob Casey, D-Penn., introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act today. A variety of student and civil rights groups support the bill, which has not made it to the floor in previous sessions of Congress.

The bill, in the form of an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, would essentially mandate local anti-bullying policies. It prescribes required elements for those policies, including that they explicitly prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which has been a sticking point in the passage of some state-level policies. Under the Safe Schools Improvement Act, bullying includes cyberbullying and electronic communications.

“Parents not helping, schools not helping, and elected officials are certainly not doing enough” to address bullying, Sen. Casey said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, citing studies about its effects on school attendance and mental health.

Casey said the support of Republican co-sponsor Kirk was helpful, but “we’re going to need more than one Republican” to win passage. He said he’d discussed the bill with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is the chairman of the education committee and currently steering conversations about reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind.

“Whenever you’re talking about insisting that a local entity do somethiing they may not be doing now ... there’s a resistance sometimes that Republican senators have,” Casey said. “I understand that, but I think we just need to keep engaging.”

Bullying Defined

As I’ve reported before, bullying has widely varying definitions for researchers, students, parents, and educators.

The bill sets its own definition for prohibited behavior that is similar to some language I’ve seen in many state policies. It would require states receiving federal funds to mandate district-level policies “that prevent and prohibit conduct, including bullying and harassment, that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in, or benefit from, a program or activity of a public school or local educational agency; or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment, adversely affecting a student’s education, at a program or activity of a public school or local educational agency, including acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression or intimidation.”

Those policies would be required to explicitly prohibit bullying and harrassment on the basis of the “actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion” of a student or someone that student associates with.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act would also require schools to notify parents annually of policies and grievance procedures related to bullying and to collect and report data annually on bullying incidents. It would mandate biennial state reports on bullying data and plans to support districts in addressing it, and it would require that data to be collected and reported at the federal level.

Existing Laws

It’s worth mentioning here that the office for civil rights data collection already asks some questions about bullying, including details about districts’ bullying policies, demographic data about students who have reported being bullied, and demographic information about students disciplined for bullying others. But, because districts have a patchwork of anti-bullying policies, those data may not be consistent, advocates for the bill have said. The data collection mandated under the bill would relate to incidents that violate the new, more uniform policies mandated by the legislation.

Most current district-level bullying policies were set to comply with state laws. Every state but Montana has a law mandating district-level policies, but those laws vary in the behaviors they prohibit, and many don’t specifically mention characteristics like sexual orientation. Student groups have said such elements are necessary to protect all students, but some conservatives have argued that they may serve to chill speech about religious opposition to same-sex marriage.

There are currently no federal laws related to bullying, but schools are required to address many forms of bullying and harrasment under civil rights laws related to sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, and ethnicity, and disability status.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.