OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY
rights laws enforced by OCR—race, color, national origin, sex, and disability—to include such bases as sexual orientation and religion. While this letter concerns your legal obligations under the laws enforced by OCR, other federal, state, and local laws impose additional obligations on schools.7 And, of course, even when bullying or harassment is not a civil rights violation, schools should still seek to prevent it in order to protect students from the physical and emotional harms that it may cause.
Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet; or other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating. Harassment does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents. Harassment creates a hostile environment when the conduct is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school. When such harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability, it violates the civil rights laws that OCR enforces.8
A school is responsible for addressing harassment incidents about which it knows or reasonably should have known.9 In some situations, harassment may be in plain sight, widespread, or well-known to students and staff, such as harassment occurring in hallways, during academic or physical education classes, during extracurricular activities, at recess, on a school bus, or through graffiti in public areas. In these cases, the obvious signs of the harassment are sufficient to put the school on notice. In other situations, the school may become aware of misconduct, triggering an investigation that could lead to the discovery of additional incidents that, taken together, may constitute a hostile environment. In all cases, schools should have well-publicized policies prohibiting harassment and procedures for reporting and resolving complaints that will alert the school to incidents of harassment.10
When responding to harassment, a school must take immediate and appropriate
action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. The specific steps
in a school’s investigation will vary depending upon the nature of the allegations,
the source of the complaint, the age of the student or students involved, the
size and administrative structure of the school, and other factors. In all
cases, however, the inquiry should be prompt, thorough, and impartial.
If an investigation reveals that discriminatory harassment has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile
7 For instance,
the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has jurisdiction over Title IV of
the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000c (Title IV), which prohibits
discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, or national
origin by public elementary and secondary schools and public institutions
of higher learning. State laws also provide additional civil rights protections,
so districts should review these statutes to determine what protections
they afford (e.g., some state laws specifically prohibit discrimination
on the basis of sexual orientation).
8 Some conduct alleged to be harassment may implicate the First Amendment rights to free speech or expression. For more information on the First Amendment’s application to harassment, see the discussions in OCR’s Dear Colleague Letter: First Amendment (July 28, 2003), available at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/firstamend.html, and OCR’s Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties (Jan. 19, 2001) (Sexual Harassment Guidance), available at http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/shguide.html.
9 A school has notice of harassment if a responsible employee knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, about the harassment. For a discussion of what a “responsible employee” is, see OCR’s Sexual Harassment Guidance.
10 Districts must adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of student and employee sex and disability discrimination complaints, and must notify students, parents, employees, applicants, and other interested parties that the district does not discriminate on the basis of sex or disability. See 28 C.F.R. § 35.106; 28 C.F.R. § 35.107(b); 34 C.F.R. § 104.7(b); 34 C.F.R. § 104.8; 34 C.F.R. § 106.8(b); 34 C.F.R. § 106.9.