But starting here in the U.S., the series of suicides by students who killed themselves after being harassed around issues of sexual orientation. Recently the Office of Civil Rights at the Education Department issued a dear colleague letter reminding educators that federal law generally protects students from that kind of harassment. And that harassment could include verbal taunting, name calling, graphic or written statements, use of cell phones or the internet. All of that could fall under the Civil Rights Act.
To learn more about what constitutes discrimination and how the government believes schools should respond when bullying occurs, we’ve called the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali. She wrote the letter of guidance for schools and she’s with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. RUSSLYNN ALI (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Department of Education): Hello, Michel, it’s a delight to be here.
MARTIN: Was it your understanding that educators might not know that this behavior might fall under the Civil Rights Act? Or was it your sense that they might know and weren’t sure how to respond or how serious it is? What was your sense of it?
Ms. ALI: Both. Our intent was to provide support to school districts, school leaders, college and university faculty and presidents across the country. Now, the truth is we have heard and received questions about issues of bullying and harassment directed towards students that are members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community.
Some, in fact, did believe that because bullying and harassment was targeted at those students, it somehow didn’t fall under the federal civil rights laws because we don’t hold jurisdiction over sexual orientation.
MARTIN: That was going to be my question. What is the department’s jurisdiction? Because the Civil Rights Act doesn’t specifically name sexual orientation and federal law doesn’t specifically have jurisdiction. So I’d like to ask, what is the guidance here?
Ms. ALI: We enforce over discrimination against students based on race, color and national origin under Title XI of the Civil Rights Act, based on sex under Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act, and based on disability under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. That said, much of the bullying and harassment directed toward students that are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is in fact not because of their sexual orientation. It’s because they are not conforming to what some hold as traditional gender stereotypes.
Boys are acting effeminate. Girls are participating in traditionally male activities. And so they are bullied and harassed because of that. That in fact is discrimination based on sex.