Schools, colleges and universities that fail to address ethnic, sexual or gender-based harassment could be violating a student's civil rights protected under federal anti-discrimination laws, the U.S. Department of Education advised academic institutions nationwide in a letter issued Tuesday.
The advisory came in the wake of two high-profile cases of bullying that resulted in suicide. Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi killed himself last month after a sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room was streamed online. Phoebe Prince, 15, of Massachusetts, took her own life after relentless bullying by schoolmates.
Locally, three Nassau County teens were charged earlier this month with third-degree assault as a hate crime, a felony, after being accused of slapping and kicking a 14-year-old boy while yelling anti-gay slurs aboard a school bus as it left the Nassau BOCES Career Preparatory High School in Westbury.
A Roslyn nonprofit dedicated to preventing bullying, Child Abuse Prevention Services, welcomed the Department of Education's outreach.
"It's a very good start," CAPS executive director Alane Fagin said. "But it needs to be more than the social issue of the moment. . . . When the publicity dies down, we must continue our efforts to prevent bullying and cyberbullying."
Several Long Island educators said local school districts already have anti-bullying programs or policies in place that address understanding and tolerance among students. Local university officials say they also offer similar initiatives.
"The letter is very similar in nature to the requirements in existence in New York State and is within the range of positions and programs that we already have instituted all over Long Island," Connetquot superintendent Alan B. Groveman said.
Sandra Johnson, vice president for student affairs at Hofstra University, said the university promotes acceptance of ethnic and sexual diversity, and harassment would violate its community standards guidelines. "We'd determine and investigate the circumstances," she said. "First, we'd ensure the student is feeling safe and supported."
David Kilmnick, chief executive of Bay Shore-based Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, said advocacy groups were briefed Tuesday in a conference call with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Local students say they feel more supported in schools with a zero-tolerance policy, gay-straight alliance clubs and in-school workshops, Kilmnick said.
The U.S. Department of Education plans to hold technical assistance workshops next year to help educators.
CAPS presented 160 anti-bullying programs in classrooms on Long Island in the first two months of the last school year. That number jumped more than 50 percent this year to 250.
"This speaks to our schools wanting to address the issue and being proactive with their students," said Fagin, whose group opened a bullying prevention center in September.
Statistics from the state Department of Education show a nearly 11 percent decline on the Island in incidents reported as intimidation or bullying from 2006-2007 to 2008-2009.
Long Island schools offer many types of anti-bullying programs. Robert Feeney, principal of William Floyd High School with 3,200 students, said the district stresses character education and has an anonymous hotline for students.
South Huntington parent Doreen Boehme, who has twin boys in eighth grade and serves as PTA council president, helped launched an ongoing districtwide anti-bullying initiative in the spring that includes guest speakers, videos, programs and an anti-bullying pledge signed by all students.
The Office for Civil Rights received 800 complaints alleging harassment over the last fiscal year, according to The Associated Press, with an increase in harassment against certain groups, including gays and lesbians, as well as Muslim students. Federal education officials said aid to schools could be jeopardized if they do not adequately deal with discrimination, but cutting off federal funds is very unlikely.
With Carol Polsky