Skip to main content

Bullying, harassment, and the equity link

Published January 2014

Bullying has been, and will continue to be, a hot topic. We will continue to see proposals in the legislative session to make changes to the law. We also will continue to hear stories in the news and on social media about incidents of bullying occurring here in Iowa and around the United States. Since this continues to be a hot topic, it deserves some attention here.

For school districts that are dealing with bullying reports and investigations, there is a fine line between bullying and discriminatory harassment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age under the civil rights laws. Administrators need to recognize when student misconduct that appears to fall under an anti-bullying policy also triggers responsibilities under one or more of the anti-discrimination laws enforced by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

The failure to recognize discriminatory harassment when dealing with a bullying incident can lead to an inappropriate response or a failure to remediate violations of individual student rights. In 2010, OCR provided guidance on the relationship between bullying and discriminatory harassment in a Dear Colleague letter (turn to page 17 for a link to this letter). In August 2013, OCR also provided specific guidance on bullying and harassment in an IDEA context. School administrators should be familiar with these documents to ensure the proper handling of bullying and harassment complaints. Just remember the worst thing an administrator can do with a bullying and harassment complaint is nothing at all. Keep up your hard work and dedication to making your school environment a happy and safe environment for all kids.

OCR Dear Colleague Letter on Bullying and Harassment

Fact Sheet

August 20, 2013, OCR Dear Colleague Letter on Bullying and Harassment and IDEA

The role of your equity coordinator
In many districts, the role of the equity coordinator has been relegated to handling complaints and grievances related to perceived discrimination and harassment. The role of the equity coordinator is critical. Serious attention to the responsibilities of the equity coordinator would assist in eliminating many of those violations.

Title IX of the education amendments of 1972 states, “Each district shall designate at least one employee to coordinate its efforts to comply with and carry out its responsibilities under this legislation, including any investigation of any complaint communicated to such recipient alleging its noncompliance with this part or alleging any actions which would be prohibited by this part. The recipient shall notify all its students and employees of the name, office address and telephone number of the employee or employees appointed pursuant to this paragraph.” There is similar language in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 dealing with discrimination on the basis of disability.

It is clear the intent of the legislation is for the equity coordinator to be more than a receiver of complaints and a grievance processor. It’s the equity coordinator’s role to keep staff, students, and parents informed about their responsibilities and rights under the law and to monitor programs and activities within the district to ensure that they comply with federal and state equity requirements related to gender, disability, race, color, national origin, religion, creed, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, and socioeconomic status.

If you are unsure, or your equity coordinator is unsure of what their responsibilities are, contact your AEA for assistance. The AEA can provide training and updates for equity coordinators. You may also refer to the Department of Education’s “Equity Education” webpage, where you will find guidance on the role of the equity coordinator.