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Dear Colleague Letter

OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY



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    hostile environment created by the harassment, address its effects, and take steps to ensure that harassment does not recur.  Put differently, the unique effects of discriminatory harassment may demand a different response than would other types of bullying.

Below, I provide hypothetical examples of how a school’s failure to recognize student misconduct as discriminatory harassment violates students’ civil rights.12  In each of the examples, the school was on notice of the harassment because either the school or a responsible employee knew or should have known of misconduct that constituted harassment.  The examples describe how the school should have responded in each circumstance.

Title VI:  Race, Color, or National Origin Harassment

  • Some students anonymously inserted offensive notes into African-American students’ lockers and notebooks, used racial slurs, and threatened African-American students who tried to sit near them in the cafeteria.  Some African-American students told school officials that they did not feel safe at school.  The school investigated and responded to individual instances of misconduct by assigning detention to the few student perpetrators it could identify.  However, racial tensions in the school continued to escalate to the point that several fights broke out between the school’s racial groups. 
    In this example, school officials failed to acknowledge the pattern of harassment as indicative of a racially hostile environment in violation of Title VI.  Misconduct need not be directed at a particular student to constitute discriminatory harassment and foster a racially hostile environment.  Here, the harassing conduct included overtly racist behavior (e.g., racial slurs) and also targeted students on the basis of their race (e.g., notes directed at African-American students).  The nature of the harassment, the number of incidents, and the students’ safety concerns demonstrate that there was a racially hostile environment that interfered with the students’ ability to participate in the school’s education programs and activities. 
    Had the school recognized that a racially hostile environment had been created, it would have realized that it needed to do more than just discipline the few individuals whom it could identify as having been involved.  By failing to acknowledge the racially hostile environment, the school failed to meet its obligation to implement a more systemic response to address the unique effect that the misconduct had on the school climate.  A more effective response would have included, in addition to punishing the perpetrators, such steps as reaffirming the school’s policy against discrimination (including racial harassment), publicizing the means to report allegations of racial harassment, training faculty on constructive responses to racial conflict, hosting class discussions about racial harassment and sensitivity to students of other races, and conducting outreach to involve parents and students in an effort to identify problems and improve the school climate.  Finally, had school officials responded appropriately

12 Each of these hypothetical examples contains elements taken from actual cases.


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Last Modified: 10/26/2010