As schools reopen in the New Year and Donald Trump’s inauguration draws near, the reality of dramatic increases in hate speech and hate behavior cannot be ignored. Educators need to know that merely reacting to offenses will not be adequate. The adults in charge need to step up and be proactive. They must draw some very clear lines about what behavior will not be tolerated. It’s not enough to offer counseling and sympathetic hugs after the fact!
Why? Not just for the right reason–to support vulnerable students–but also to cover their own butts, because ‘after the fact’ actions, no matter how warm and supportive, are insufficient, inappropriate and almost certainly illegal.
The law is very much on the side of the victims, and school authorities ought to know that they are obligated under federal law to protect young people. I am not referring to anti-bullying legislation, which differs to state to state, but to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, sometimes known as ‘That damned sports law.’ Title IX clearly prohibits sexual harassment, and, even when bullying is ostensibly directed against an individual’s race, ethnicity or religion, it almost invariably includes sexual references. Girls are called “sluts” and “hos,” boys are called “fags’ and other names. Sexual rumors and comments are frequent. And the above behavior violates the granddaddy of all laws in this area, Title IX.
Title IX also prohibits these behaviors outside the school, such as when personal computers are used, when the behavior is disruptive to learning or affects a student’s ability to partake of the opportunities for learning and in other opportunities provided by the school. In short, schools and school administrator, under Title IX, are obligated to stop sexual cyber-bullying. Moreover, they stand to lose federal funding if they do not. Some school districts have paid 6-figure settlements for their demonstrated failure to protect students from harassment and cyber-bullying.
Money talks. Understanding the legal and financial ramifications of all forms of bullying is one of the best incentives to get schools involved in developing specific programs for students, families, administrators, teachers, staff, including the janitors. Self-interest is a powerful incentive, as are the threats of federal involvement and individual lawsuits. Together, these should motivate schools to proactively develop strong prevention programs—to let everyone know, “We don’t tolerate bullying here, because we’re better than that.”
But defensive behavior is not sufficient. Schools today must provide opportunities for all young people, haters included, to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You and I were sent to schools because that’s where the knowledge was stored–but that was yesterday. Today’s young people need guidance in learning how to sift through the flood of information (much of it ‘fake news’) and turn it into knowledge. Because websites have what purport to be the answers, students need to be able to formulate good questions that will enable them to discern the difference between wheat and chaff. And don’t forget that good questions, projects, and team-activities will keep young people involved; they’ll be too busy to spend their time hating.