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Democrats Ask Betsy DeVos to Act Against ‘Hateful Bullying’ in Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 25, 2017 9 min read
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Democratic lawmakers want to know how Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will work to stop bullying, harassment, and discrimination in public schools.

In a Wednesday letter, nine senators—including Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee—asked the secretary what resources the U.S. Department of Education was providing schools in order to counter “the recent increase in hateful and discriminatory speech and conduct.” They also asked for the number of ongoing investigations by the department into student-on-student harassment based on things like race, religion, and sexual orientation, as well as whether the federal task force on bullying prevention initiated by President Barack Obama in 2010 would continue on DeVos’ watch.

The senators also took a potshot at DeVos’ boss, President Donald Trump, arguing that his remarks on Twitter have “normalized” homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination, and that his words have negatively impacted students. And they cite recent incidents in schools, from swastikas drawn in schools to Latino students blocked from entering class by a human chain of other students, to buttress their concerns.

Education Week examined the issue of Trump’s rhetoric and its effect on school climate nearly a year ago. In a separate piece, we also heard from school leaders about the impact of Trump’s election on their schools. The tone of the 2016 president race had a particularly pronounced effect on some Latino students.

It’s also worth pointing out that over the last few decades, the rate of violent and non-violent student incidents has declined in schools, and that students feel safer in school than they used to, according to federal data.

DeVos has repeatedly said she is dedicated to creating a safe and positive environment in schools. Critics have charged that her support for rescinding Obama-era protections for transgender students belie those public statements. After tossing those protections aside, DeVos’ department issued a directive to civil rights officials to focus on preventing bullying against transgender students, rather than their access to facilities that matched their gender identity.

Democrats and DeVos have also regularly sparred about the department’s approach to civil rights. Democratic senators charge that DeVos is ignoring incidents of discrimination at school or sweeping them under the rug, while DeVos has said she is taking a more efficient approach to such complaints.

“The Department must work with school leaders to condemn incidents of hate and discrimination targeted at our students,” the senators wrote to DeVos. “And the Department must work with schools to make certain they have the resources and assistance they need to prevent bullying and harassment, and to address issues when they do occur.”

Click here to report a hate crime or harassment that you’ve experienced or seen at school. It’s part of a joint project among Education Week, ProPublica, and other organizations.

In addition to Murray, the Democrats who signed the letter are Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Al Franken of Minnesota, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. All are on the Senate education committee.

Read the complete letter from the senators to the secretary below:

Dear Secretary DeVos:

We write with great alarm about the recent increase in hateful and discriminatory speech and conduct in schools across the country. We are deeply concerned that President Trump’s tweets and remarks have normalized bigotry, racism, homophobia, and misogyny and that his behavior has fostered discrimination, enabled bullies, and threatened the safety of students. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that all students—no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or country of origin—feel safe in their learning environments. To that end, we call on the Department to outline its plan to address the rise of discrimination and harassment in our schools.

Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability. These protections are critical to providing all children with equal access to public education and to providing our country and economy a talented group of leaders and workers in the 21st century.

As the Department has clarified, schools can violate federal civil rights statutes when school employees do not adequately address harassment that creates a hostile environment for students. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the 10 days following the election of President Trump, there were nearly 900 reports of harassment and intimidation, including 183 at primary and secondary schools and 140 on college campuses. In a follow-up study, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that ninety percent of 10,000 K-12 educators surveyed “have seen a negative impact on students’ mood and behavior following the election.” The recent spate of incidents of racial and ethnic animus, bullying, and harassment have continued at an alarming pace, raising serious questions about whether all our students truly have equal access to education in a safe and supportive environment.

There have been far too many examples of messages of intolerance and hate directed at and often intended to intimidate students on our college campuses. As just a few examples: a swastika was found at Georgetown University in a bathroom on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. At the University of Maryland, a noose was placed in the kitchen of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. At Drake University, symbols of hate including a swastika and racial slurs were found written in campus facilities. And flyers saying “Imagine a Muslim-Free America” and “Beware the International Jew” were papered across the University of Houston’s campus. In fact, since March 2016, more than 329 incidents of white nationalist fliers and recruitment materials on 241 different college campuses were reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center. BuzzFeed News found 154 total incidents of white supremacist propaganda and other acts of racism on college and university campuses since the election. More than one in three of these incidents directly cited President Trump’s name or one of his slogans.

The increase in distressing incidents directed at students stretches beyond our colleges and universities to touch our younger students. A survey of more than 10,000 K-12 educators across the country found that eighty percent reported “heightened anxiety on the part of marginalized students.” More than 2,500 educators “described specific incidents of bigotry and harassment that can be directly traced to election rhetoric.” In your own home state of Michigan, it was reported that students at a junior high school in Dewitt had built a human wall to block Latino students from entering their classrooms. A viral YouTube video documented students at a Michigan middle school, chanting “Build the Wall” in the cafeteria. And one Michigan middle high school teacher observed, "[a] proud proclamation of racism was made by a student after the election: ‘Bet those black people are really scared now.’” These are just three examples of hundreds across the country involving verbal and physical harassment, derogatory language, including racial slurs, and even swastikas and Nazi salutes.

The Department can help change this deeply disturbing trend. For example, the Obama Administration hosted the first Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit in 2010. Since then, the Department under President Obama took multiple steps to provide guidance that helped address particular concerns of LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. For example, the Department issued four Dear Colleague letters on harassment and bullying, gay-straight alliances, and bullying of students with disabilities. In 2012 the Department released guidance and a two-part training toolkit to help classroom teachers combat bullying as well as training materials specifically for school bus drivers. Because of such federal efforts and because of state and local action to prevent bullying, 2015 data from the Department’s National Center for Education Statistics showed that bullying significantly decreased for the first time since data collection began in 2005. Clear guidelines and follow-through by federal, state, and local agencies can ensure progress.

It is critical that the Department reaffirm its commitment to enforcing civil rights laws and send a clear message to schools about their responsibility to ensure a safe educational environment for all students. The Department must work with school leaders to condemn incidents of hate and discrimination targeted at our students. And the Department must work with schools to make certain they have the resources and assistance they need to prevent bullying and harassment, and to address issues when they do occur.

We request a briefing for our staff about how you intend to address these critical issues. Additionally, please respond to the following questions no later than November 8, 2017:

  1. What steps is the Department taking to address the rise in hateful bullying and intimidation in K-12 schools and on college campuses?
  2. What resources does the Department provide to schools working to prevent and address harassment and discrimination?
  3. Is the Department committed to continuing the “Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Task Force” created by President Obama in 2010? If it is, what work is the Department planning to undertake in this capacity? If it is not, what is the rationale for this policy change?
  4. Is the Administration committed to nominating an Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights who will consider these issues a priority? If so, what is the timeline for that nomination?
  5. For each of the following categories, please provide the number of ongoing investigations, the number of investigations opened and closed since your confirmation, and the number of resolution agreements finalized since January 2017: student-on-student harassment based on race or ethnicity, religion, national origin, disability, and sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

As you have said, "[w]e owe all students a commitment to ensure that they have access to a learning environment free of discrimination, bullying, and harassment.” The Department must denounce hate and work to ensure that all students are afforded an equal opportunity to achieve their full potential. No student should have to endure harassment, intimidation and bullying to learn.

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