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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

OK, Bullying Is Bad...But I’m Still Mixed on ED’s Fix

By Rick Hess — October 27, 2010 4 min read
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Yesterday, the Department of Ed rolled out its new anti-bullying initiative, featuring a “Dear Colleague” letter regarding requirements under federal antidiscrimination laws. ED’s press release quoted Secretary of Education Duncan declaring, “Bullying is a problem that shouldn’t exist. No one should ever feel harassed or unsafe in a school simply because they act or think or dress differently than others.” It’s a nice sentiment and, as a guy who took my share of abuse back in the day, I’m all for kids feeling safe and secure.

That said, the heavy-handed tenor of the announcement made me uneasy--especially when I envisioned the feds leaning on educators to squelch out behavior that seems to come pretty naturally to people of all shapes, colors, ages, and backgrounds. I was ruffled by concerns that we’re opening the door to a lot of federal second-guessing when it comes to school discipline. At that point, I did what no one intent on penning a really hard-hitting column should ever do--I spent twenty minutes discussing my concerns with my friend Russlynn Ali, ED’s charming, razor-sharp assistant secretary for civil rights.

I can’t say Russ won me over, but she certainly tamped down my concerns. She said that the letter and the effort do not feature any new rules or guidance, but are intended to clarify what existing policy already requires. She said that what the Department has spelled out is “not a new policy. It has been longstanding policy and was enforced by the previous administration.” Really, she said, this is just a “clarification of existing regulations,” though it’s the first time “it’s been packaged in this way.” She said that the letter was less about federal enforcement than about ED wanting “to inform schools and the public that we are here to help...by providing support and technical assistance.” (Because I appreciate the spirit of what Russ was saying, I won’t dwell on the fact that ten of the scariest words in the English language may be, “I’m from the federal government, and I’m here to help.”)

Russlynn said that when a complaint is filed, ED will “thoroughly investigate” and then “work with school and district leaders” to address any problems. Only if a systemic problem is found and local officials fail to act will ED move on the “enforcement stage.” This is both textbook and sensible. My uneasiness is that I know of far too many cases where overeager federal bureaucrats have turned reasonable processes into ludicrous exercises, and where knee-knocking state and local officials have responded by winding educators in a bubble wrap of infuriating, time-consuming requirements and process.

Ultimately, I’m worried that it’s easy for self-righteous federal officials lacking Russ’s savvy and judgment to get caught up in crusades. I worry that Russ’s reasoned explanations may harden into new process mandates. I fear that the current Department is inclined to adopt an expansive view of its role. And I worry about teachers and school leaders getting wrapped in new rules, procedures, and processes designed primarily to keep the feds at bay.

After all, Russlynn noted that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been working on this for a while because the underlying trends seem to be getting worse. She said that the National Center for Education Statistics reports that one-third of students aged 12 to 18 report being bullied and that half of all kids experience bullying. She also said that the AAUW reports that 60% of females and males on college campuses experience sexual harassment and that the figure may be higher in K-12. If those kinds of numbers are accurate, then it seems to me that nothing less than a radical assault on student norms, mores, and behavior is likely to satisfy an aggressive OCR push--and that most of the nation’s schools and districts are at risk of federal antidiscrimination action.

If these figures are accurate, after decades of efforts to promote tolerance and reduce bullying, the question is whether well-intended federal legislators and ED officials are asking schools to reengineer human nature. If that’s the case, I can imagine lots of investigations, enforcement, rule-making, remediation, and mandatory training that amount to little but that consume vast educator time and energy. (Of course, those figures may show that we’re “defining bullying down"--that we’re now labeling as “bullying” behavior which have once been deemed “teasing.” If that’s the case, seeking to stamp out all vestiges of “bullying” raises the NCLB-style spectre of creating fantastical expectations, with all the attendant problems that follow.)

At the end of the day, I understand and appreciate what the Department is trying to do. Laws are supposed to be enforced. We absolutely need to protect vulnerable youth from bullies and harassment. We need schools to be places where students are safe and able to learn. And, as Russ notes, federal statute requires that ED play a role here. But that role needs to be tempered by the humility that Russ voiced, and accompanied by an appreciation for the difference between asking schools to combat harassment and expecting overburdened educators to bring peace on earth and good will among men.

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