School officials invariably express great sorrow when campus bullying leads to tragedy; they also usually say that they are shocked to find that anyone was being harassed, even when the victim or parents have complained. But nothing actually gets schools to change their behavior like the promise of money or the threat of its removal. That’s why it was heartening to learn that the U.S. Department of Education took its first strong steps against bullying this week by announcing that schools might lose federal funding for failing to stop bullying of gay students on campus.
There are federal civil rights laws that, at least theoretically, prohibit harassment of students on the basis of race, national origin, gender or religion, and in his announcement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told schools to use them to enforce rules against bullying. In addition, the department will use court rulings on gender discrimination to include gay and lesbian students among those protected groups. Schools, including colleges, will be required to adopt anti-bullying plans after an incident or face the possible loss of federal aid. The U.S. Department of Justice also might be brought in to investigate. The new get-tough policy came after the recent suicides of five gay teenagers who had been harassed at school, as well as the suicides of several straight teenagers who had been bullied.
The Education Department is right to use all the powers at its disposal, and it should indeed take tough legal action when schools fail to protect vulnerable populations. But federal civil rights laws are an awkward tool for changing student culture on campus, and even department officials concede that the laws would be invoked only in the most extreme cases. And what about the bullying of students who don’t fall within one of the protected categories? All students have the right to feel safe on campus. The tolerant attitude toward bullying among many school officials is as unacceptable as the harassment itself.
It’s too bad the Education Department took so long to take steps against bullying. It could have used the Race to the Top program, under which states receive large federal grants for agreeing to education reforms, to push for meaningful state laws that would create effective anti-bullying programs for all public schools, and require the schools to use them.
That opportunity was missed, but there will be others. Many schools have successfully changed campus culture. We already know what works — a combination of educating students and the community to understand that cruel behavior hurts others in terrible ways, and disciplining the bullies rather than trying to get the victims to change. Duncan should use both his funding clout and his bully pulpit to send an insistent message that states and individual schools must use both weapons against the kinds of bullying that make school a daily misery for too many students.