May 28, 2017

Post-Election Hostile School Environment: Protecting Students from Bullying and Harassment

post election school climate

Schools, including K-12 schools, colleges, and universities, have a responsibility to protect their students from harm. Harm includes the inability to benefit fully from education as a result of being in a hostile school environment. The politically motivated rhetoric and actions seen in schools during and after the presidential campaign can create a hostile school environment for which schools can be held responsible.

Many of the attorneys who seek Education Management Consulting, LLC’s expert witness services are involved in litigation over the actions of students toward classmates. In these cases, attorneys want to know whether the school administration responded appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances. Each state has a law that requires schools’ governing bodies to develop and implement policies ensuring that students’ educational environment is free from hostility and is conducive to learning. When campaign rhetoric and the election results spark hateful harassment, intimidation, or bullying, resulting in a hostile school environment, schools must follow state law and respond according to the policies put forth by boards of education, colleges, or universities.

When a group of eighth-grade students intimidate a Latino student by saying, “You have to go back to Mexico now,” and, “You won’t be able to come back to school because there will be a wall to keep you out of our country,” the school needs to address this behavior. The student in this scenario refused to go to school after this occurred on three separate occasions. It can be argued that if the school knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to intervene to end the behavior, resulting in a hostile school environment, there may be an argument that the school breached the professional standard of care and may be liable for damages.

According to a survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were almost 900 incidents of “hateful harassment” nationwide in the 10 days following the presidential election. Schools were the most common venue for these incidents, a result the center called “not surprising, given how prevalent bullying is in our nation’s schools.” The findings correlate with those of a previous study conducted by the center, which reported that the campaign’s scorching words had a “profoundly negative impact” on students. In the earlier study, more than half of teachers said they had seen an increase in harassment, intimidation, and bullying of students whose race, religion, or nationality was the target of political rhetoric resulting in a hostile school environment for all students.

This kind of behavior, when it occurs in schools, colleges, and universities, constitutes harassment (and, under certain policies, intimidation and bullying). Yet 4 out of 10 teachers who responded to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s post-election survey didn’t think their school had a real plan of action for dealing with bias and hate incidents. Some teachers interviewed by CNN said their schools could benefit from better resources and training for teachers, administrators, and staff.

No federal law directly addresses bullying in schools, however bullying in certain instances can overlap with discriminatory harassment based on protected classes. When intimidating, harassing and bullying behavior occurs, there may be a breach of federal civil rights or antidiscrimination laws or state laws against discrimination. No matter what label is used (e.g., harassment, intimidation or bullying), a school that fails to respond appropriately to harassment of students based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, or religion may be violating one or more civil rights laws enforced by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice.

Determining the Professional Standard of Care in Cases Involving Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying

When Education Management Consulting, LLC reviews a case involving a hostile school environment and student harassment, our staff, after determining the issues surrounding a complaint, identifies the standard of professional care. The standard is identified in federal and state statutes, regulations, and advisories to administrators, as well as the policies of the board of education. Next, we review all testimony, reports, and other available information to identify the incident(s) that may have occurred, to whom they were reported, how the school responded, and in the opinion of our education expert witness, whether the school acted appropriately and reasonably and within the professional standard of care under the circumstance. The school may not have been informed of the harassing behavior, and in that case, would not have an obligation to supervise students any differently. If the administration, however, has knowledge of the harassing behavior, the school, through its administration and/or other employees, is responsible for supervising students differently to end the harmful behavior.

A plaintiff’s attorney will need to show that the school had policies to address harassment, that the administration had knowledge or should have had knowledge that harassment occurred, and that ignoring that information caused the harassment to continue or worsen. Additionally, the plaintiff’s attorney will need to show that the harassment was responsible for the creation of a hostile school environment to the extent that the student failed to benefit fully from his or her education.

A defendant’s attorney will need to show that the school had policies to address harassment, that staff was adequately informed and trained regarding the policies, that there was no knowledge of the alleged harassment nor should the school have known of it, and that the plaintiff did not experience a hostile learning environment and continued to benefit from their education.

School Duty Regarding Harassment, Intimidation, Bullying and School Climate

Anyone can report harassing conduct to a school official. When a school receives a complaint, it must take certain steps to investigate and resolve the situation while implementing school policies and procedures. These include:

  • Taking immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what happened
  • Ensuring that an inquiry is prompt, thorough, and impartial
  • Interviewing the targeted students, offending students, and witnesses, and maintaining documentation of the investigation
  • Communicating with the targeted students regarding the steps taken to end harassment
  • Checking with the targeted students to ensure that the harassment has ceased
  • Reporting any criminal conduct to the authorities
  • Implementing the school’s code of conduct and discipline for the offenders

When an investigation reveals that harassment has occurred, a school should take steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile school environment, prevent harassment from recurring, and prevent retaliation against the targeted student(s) or complainant(s). In addition, schools should be proactive and ensure that students, parents, staff, and the community are trained and receive information on the prevention of harassment, intimidation and bullying motivated by political rhetoric and based on race, national origin, color, sex, age, disability, and religion.

Successfully Resolving Harassment Complaints to Avoid a Hostile School Environment

Appropriate responses will depend on the facts of each case. Following a complaint or observation of inappropriate harassing or intimidating behavior, school officials must conduct an “environmental scan” to determine what occurred, who was involved in what occurred, when and where it occurred, and what could have been done differently to avoid the behavior. Once an investigation is completed, the school should continue to monitor the situation, respond to harassment, and take reasonable steps when crafting remedies in order to prevent a hostile school environment. The remedies should include responses intended to minimize burdens on students who were targets of the harassment. Possible responses include:

  • Develop, revise, and publicize the school’s policy prohibiting harassment and discrimination; Grievance procedures for students to file harassment complaints; Contact information for the Title IX and Title VI coordinators
  • Implement training for staff and administration on identifying and addressing harassment
  • Implement training for students on identifying and reporting harassment
  • Provide monitors or additional adult supervision in areas where harassment occurs
  • Determine consequences and services, such as counseling, for harassers, including whether or not discipline is appropriate
  • Limit interactions between harassers and their targets
  • Provide the harassed student an additional opportunity to obtain an educational benefit that was denied (e.g., retaking a test or class)
  • Provide services to a student who was denied a benefit (e.g., academic support services, counseling)

Schools Should Be Diligent, Watchful, and Responsive to Avoid a Hostile School Environment

What motivates students or gives them the impression that they can inappropriately express their bias, anger, or feelings about a classmate can come from various sources, including what is heard through the media, what is heard in the home, and political attitudes and expressions from candidates. Freedom of expression is cherished, but where it enters the light of harassing, intimidating, or bullying behavior that insults or demeans any student or group of students or severely or pervasively causes physical or emotional harm to the student, the school has a responsibility to intervene to end the behavior. If one student tells another student of Middle Eastern national origin, “Get out of this country. You are going to be kicked out. We don’t want you here,” this likely rises to the level of prohibited harassment, intimidation, or bullying. When a school administrator, teacher, or staff member observes such behavior or receives a report of such behavior, the school must immediately apply its policy, conduct an investigation, effectively discipline the offending student(s) according to the student code of conduct, provide support services to the victim(s), and implement other programs and services to inform students of school policy and the consequences of violating it. In the wake of the election, every school should assess the climate within its own walls and develop approaches that provide learning experiences for the students and not a forum for hate.

If a school district or board of education has an appropriate policy; has effectively communicated the policy to its staff and students; provided additional staff and student training programs that cover divergent political views, tolerance, and acceptance; and, acts immediately upon a report of harassment, intimidation, and bullying related to the fallout from the election, the school will have a better chance of defending itself after an incident occurs. On the other hand, if a student brings a lawsuit against the school and can demonstrate that he or she was intimidated because of national origin and that the school was lax in the implementation of its policy, the plaintiff’s attorney will likely have a better chance to prevail.

It is likely that the post-election hostile school environment and climate will continue to embolden some students to harass and intimidate classmates based on their ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or national origin. No doubt, many schools will be more active in responding to incidents. Before such behavior enters the realm of litigation, schools may be able to respond in a way that not only will protect students from the harm of a hostile school environment, but educates students about acceptance, tolerance, and community.