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Federal officials aim to prevent bullying

State, district, and school leaders discussed best practices for bullying prevention.
State, district, and school leaders discussed best practices for bullying prevention.

In day two of the federal Bullying Prevention Summit in Washington, D.C., policy experts from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and school leaders shifted their conversations from the scope of bullying across the country to the practical steps schools can take right now to help prevent bullying in the classroom.

While most of the sessions were helpful, federal officials were short on answers to questions about cyber bullying.

Read about Day One here.

The day’s session began with a description of the specific actions the DOJ is taking in partnership with the Education Department (ED) to combat bullying, as well as the resources that will be available this year.

“The biggest focus of the DOJ right now is on prevention programs in schools. Punishment, while in some cases appropriate, is not the only thing the DOJ is about,” said Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli.

According to Perrelli, the DOJ has conducted numerous studies on youth violence, most recently a report called the “National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence,” which found that 60 percent of children in the U.S. are at some point exposed to crime, abuse, and/or violence.

In light of these and other findings, Perrelli said the DOJ understands the importance of a partnership with ED. Perrelli said both agencies are looking at prevention strategies that focus first on getting everyone in the community (business executives, school leaders, parents, and students) united to prevent bullying, and second on fostering a sense of responsibility in youth to intervene and report on bullying.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) also has a Model Programs Guide, which is an online portal to scientifically tested and proven programs that address a range of issues across the juvenile justice spectrum. The Guide profiles more than 175 prevention and intervention programs and helps communities identify those that best suit their needs. Users can search the Guide’s database by program category, target population, risk and protective factors, effectiveness rating, and other parameters.

OJJDP also will begin a five-bulletin series dedicated to bullying issues and research, starting in late 2010 or early 2011.

Although prevention programs can pave the way for bully-free school environments, there are also many legal steps students and parents can take to combat bullying, said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at ED.

“So many times students and parents don’t know that bullying can fall under the protection of their civil rights, and that they have options that go beyond local law enforcement,” Ali said.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which has 12 offices around the country, enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin), Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (which prohibits discrimination based on sex), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (which prohibits discrimination based on disabilities).

The OCR receives and resolves complaints, which Ali said this year will reach upwards of 7,000—and about 70 percent of those complaints will be from middle and secondary school students.

“What we do is deal with each case and how that case relates to what’s happening in schools. In many cases, we review the school culture as a whole and mandate programs, have schools provide counseling for the student, raise community awareness, and much more,” explained Ali.

To learn more about filing a complaint with the OCR, go here.

However, while the DOJ and OCR are making strides in combating bullying, some issues have yet to be resolved.

For example, Perrelli was asked by a summit attendee how schools can combat cyber bullying, because most of it happens off school grounds.

“Some of the most aggressive and vicious bullying happens through the web when students are out of schools, and many schools are asking if, and how, they can step in and stop this bullying. It seems that perhaps the DOJ should take more of a leadership role in this area,” said the attendee.

In response, Perrelli said the DOJ will step up its work on this issue.

Parry Aftab, a lawyer with a specialty in cyberlaw and cyber bullying and creator of, asked Ali how civil rights could affect cyber bullying.

“While we wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling on school involvement in cyber bullying, perhaps the OCR could intervene,” said Aftab.

Aftab gave the example of a student posting a KKK web site link on a black student’s Facebook page.

In response, Ali told Aftab that the OCR has no answer on this issue at this time, but is working on the complicated issue of balancing First Amendment rights and state policies.

Another question posed by an attendee addressed bullying on the basis of religion.

“Sex, race, and disability statutes are great, but are there any laws the OCR uphold that deal with religion or assumed religion?” the attendee asked.

The attendee represented what he said was New York City’s Sikh community, which, since 9/11, has been the target of hate crimes and bullying.

“So many students in schools, whether they’re Middle Eastern or not, are bullied. What can the OCR do for them?” he asked.

Ali said that while religion is not covered under Title VI, the OCR is working with the DOJ to find a solution.

What schools are doing now

Although the DOJ and OCR are focusing their efforts to help schools and students with bullying, schools are ultimately responsible for the issue.

From a school perspective, Jim Dillon, educational consultant and former elementary school principal for 17 years, said the easiest way to combat bullying is to get the facts out to the community.

“For example, what is bullying? What are its effects, the role of the bystander, and the difference between bullying and conflict?” he said.

According to Dillon, education leaders must ask for help and be open to ideas, use the energy of parents to help with efforts, replace cynicism with hope, and be the change they want to see.

From a district perspective, Jack Barnes, superintendent for Sullivan County Schools (SCS) in Tennessee, said his district was recently under a DOJ Consent Decree for peer-on-peer racial harassment, meaning that a federal lawsuit was filed by a student under Title VI.

As a result of this decree, SCS had everyone in the district undergo racism and anti-harassment training, developed new policies and infrastructure, required school climate assessment and data analysis, and developed student leadership and mentoring teams.

“We found that involving kids in the process is the best solution,” said Barnes. “The school climate occurs when adults are not around and students can see, hear, and understand school climate issues in ways adults cannot. Diverse student leadership teams are the key to success.”

SCS’ student leadership process happens in five stages:

  1. An adult team forms and meets to select members of a student leadership team.
  2. Students collect school climate data based on surveys.
  3. Student leaders and adults set school climate improvement goals.
  4. Student leaders and adults develop and implement action projects.
  5. Formative assessment occurs; leaders work to ensure systemic changes and sustainability.

Thanks to the hard work of every member of SCS, the decree was lifted by the DOJ and two-thirds of SCS students showed significant improvement in school climate.

Also, every school developed School Improvement Plans that linked school climate to academic goals.

Academic achievement also improved significantly, as measured by improvement in Tennessee state test scores in those schools that showed improvement in school climate.

From a state perspective, Amy Williamson, education program consultant at the Iowa Department of Education, said Iowa has a Safe School Law, which became part of the Iowa Code in 2007.

The law prohibits bullying and harassment by employees, students, and volunteers and is based on 17 protected categories (race, sex, religion, gender identity, nationality, political beliefs, age, socio-economic status, etc.).

The law also requires schools to adopt a policy that defines consequences and procedures for investigating incidents, as well as data collecting and reporting.

“The Safe Schools Law was an unfunded mandate that needed both guided implementation and monitoring. Implementation was not successful at first, because the mandate was not specific. It’s hard to mandate behavior,” said Williamson. “It takes new skills, behavior, and belief.”

In an effort to change behavior, Williamson started a grassroots effort to help shape state policy.

Schools also must complete a standardized report form on bullying and have a data collection system in place. The state is currently in the process of altering its data collection to meet the needs of Civil Rights Data Collection.

The state also created a Safe School Certification Program. The program focuses on law compliance and elements that make a school safe, such as trainings for students and teachers about the law and programs that combat bullying. The certification is given by a coalition of diverse nonprofit organizations and state agencies that represent the 17 protected categories within the law.

“The program is important because nationally, states that see unenforced laws are less likely to want to pass comprehensive Safe School Laws,” explained Ryan Roemerman, co-founder and executive director of the Iowa Pride Network, a nonprofit organization that works with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth.

“Knowing what it takes to pass, implement, and enforce laws allows for better law creation. Ultimately, this is a transition that many states will face; this program will provide a much-needed framework.”

From a national perspective, Dr. Ken Seeley, president of the National Center for School Engagement (NCSE), pointed schools to the organization’s recently released “National School Climate Standards,” which provide a standards-based approach to governance.

The five standards measure whether or not the school community:

  1. Has a shared vision and plan;
  2. Sets policies specifically promoting the development and sustainability of social, emotional, ethical, civic, and intellectual skills; knowledge dispositions and engagement; and a comprehensive system to address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage students who have become disengaged;
  3. Identifies, prioritizes, and supports best practices;
  4. Creates an environment where all members are welcomed, supported, and feel safe in school; and
  5. Develops meaningful and engaging practices, activities, and norms that promote social and civic responsibilities and a commitment to social justice.


Department of Justice

Office for Civil Rights

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