Schools can be held liable for hostile and intimidating conditions

In today’s news two families in Ohio are suing the school district where each of their children was chronically bullied.

In that district four teens have committed suicide over the past two years. Each student had a public history of victimization and personal targeting because they were ‘different.’

Of the four victims one was gay, one (a boy) liked wearing pink, one was an immigrant and maligned with sexist assaults, and the fourth was a child with disabilities.  This little list fits well with the *Federal hate crimes statistics.

Here is text from today’s article:

It was the fourth time in little more than two years that a bullied high school student in this small Cleveland suburb on Lake Erie died by his or her own hand — three suicides, one overdose of antidepressants. One was bullied for being gay, another for having a learning disability, another for being a boy who happened to like wearing pink.

Now two families — including the Vidovics — are suing the school district, claiming their children were bullied to death and the school did nothing to stop it. The lawsuits come after a national spate of high-profile suicides by gay teens and others, and during a time of national soul-searching about what can be done to stop it.

You can read more here.

Schools can be held legally liable as the managers of these violent and hostile public spaces.   There a decades of legal precedent for holding school districts accountable.  The new educational film “Bullied” tells the story of the first legal case that found against a school for the victimization of a gay student. The film is available free to schools across the country.

One way or another, schools are going to have to go beyond simply saying “be nice” and “be respectful” to sending out the strong message that targeting individuals based upon their minority status will result in swift discipline. They can do it because it is the right thing to do. Or they can do it because they cannot afford not to.

And one way or another, schools are going to have to begin talking directly about the ideas and language which buoy discrimination and bias: The ideas and practices that perpetuate the inferiority of people of color, people of diverse religious backgrounds, gender non-conforming people, sexual minorities, women, and people with disabilities.

Until educators and the communities they serve are able to address the power and disempowerment  that come from the systemic inequality within their communities and beyond there can be no fundamental change in the most powerful weapons of bullying in our schools – the easy deployment of racist, sexist, homophobic, ablists and other bias based slurs to tear someone down.

*2008 Federal Hate Crime Statistics on Victims of Hate Crimes
■51.0 percent were victimized because of the offender’s bias against a race.
■17.9 percent were targeted because of a bias against a religious belief.
■17.6 percent were victims because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation.
■12.7 percent were targeted because of a bias against an ethnicity/national origin.
■0.9 percent were victimized because of a bias against a disability.

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