School Bullying: Legal Protections for Vulnerable Youth Need to Be More Fully Assessed

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2012-06-08.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                            United States Government Accountability Office

GAO                         Testimony
                            Before the Committee on Health,
                            Education, Labor and Pensions,
                            U.S. Senate

                            SCHOOL BULLYING
For Release on Delivery
Expected at 1:15 p.m. CDT
Friday, June 8, 2012

                            Legal Protections for
                            Vulnerable Youth Need to
                            Be More Fully Assessed
                            Statement of Linda M. Calbom, Western Regional

Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Enzi, and Members of the

I am pleased to be here today to discuss the results of the work that you
and other members of the committee requested on school bullying. It is
estimated that millions of American youths have been bullied by their
peers, including physical, verbal, and electronic attacks. 1 Some of these
incidents, including some where bullying has been linked by the media to
teen suicide, have received widespread attention, resulting in heightened
awareness of bullying, as well as a wide range of actions at the federal,
state, and local levels to address the behavior. Some of these incidents
involved bullying based on personal characteristics, including race,
religion, or sexual orientation, and have also raised questions about the
role and availability of federal and state civil rights protections. Given the
dynamic and rapidly changing nature of these efforts, governments at all
levels, as well as the public, face a growing need for information about
possible legal and practical approaches to combating bullying. My
statement is based on our report released yesterday, which addresses
the following objectives:

•   What is known about the prevalence of school bullying and its effects
    on victims?

•   What approaches are selected states and local school districts taking
    to combat school bullying?

•   What legal options do the federal and selected state governments
    have in place when bullying leads to allegations of discrimination?

•   How are key federal agencies coordinating their efforts to combat
    school bullying?

To address these objectives, we reviewed research on the prevalence
and effects on victims; analyzed state bullying laws, and school district
bullying policies; interviewed officials from the Departments of Education
(Education), Health and Human Services (HHS), and Justice, and a

 For the purposes of this testimony, the term “bullying” is used to reflect behavior that is
intended to inflict harm, repeated over time, and characterized by an imbalance of power
between the perpetrator(s) and victim(s). Some sources refer to similar behavior as
“harassment,” and may use the terms interchangeably.

Page 1                                                                          GAO-12-785T
nongeneralizable sample of eight states and six school districts; and
reviewed selected relevant federal and state civil rights laws. More
information on our scope and methodology is available in the issued
report. 2 We conducted our work on which this testimony is based from
April 2011 through May 2012 in accordance with generally accepted
government auditing standards.

Although definitions vary, including definitions used by federal agencies,
many experts generally agree that bullying involves intent to cause harm,
accompanied by repetition, and an imbalance of power. Notably, bullying
is distinct from general conflict or aggression, which can occur absent an
imbalance of power or repetition. For example, a single fight between two
youths of roughly equal power is a form of aggression, but may not be
bullying. When bullying occurs, it may take many forms, including
physical harm, such as hitting, shoving, or locking someone inside a
school locker; verbal name calling, taunts, or threats; relational attacks,
such as spreading rumors or isolating victims from their peers; and the
use of computers or cell phones to convey harmful words or images, also
referred to as cyberbullying. Bullying often occurs without apparent
provocation and may be based on the victim’s personal characteristics.
For example, youth may be bullied based on the way they look, dress,
speak, or act. To address bullying, federal, state, and local governments
have a range of efforts under way, including studies of the prevalence of
bullying, laws to prevent and address bullying, and antidiscrimination laws
that, for certain stated classes of students, can be used in some
circumstances to address discrimination resulting from bullying.

In summary, with regard to the prevalence and effects of bullying, our
findings suggest that reported levels of bullying and related effects are
significant. Research shows that bullying can have detrimental outcomes
for victims, including adverse psychological and behavioral outcomes.
According to four nationally representative surveys conducted from 2005
to 2009, an estimated 20 to 28 percent of youth, primarily middle- and
high- school-aged youths, reported they had been bullied during the
survey periods. However, differences in definitions and questions posed
to youth respondents make it difficult to discern trends and affected
groups. For example, the surveys did not collect demographic information

 GAO, School Bullying: Extent of Legal Protections for Vulnerable Groups Needs to Be
More Fully Assessed, GAO-12-349 (Washington, D.C.: May 2012).

Page 2                                                                     GAO-12-785T
by sexual orientation or gender identity. Education and HHS are partially
addressing the issue of inconsistent definitions by collaborating with other
federal departments and subject matter experts to develop a uniform
definition of bullying that can be used for research purposes. However,
gaps in knowledge about the extent of bullying of youths in key
demographic groups remain.

Selected states and school districts are taking various approaches to
reducing bullying. The bullying laws in the eight states that we reviewed
vary in who is covered and the requirements placed on state agencies
and school districts. For example, six of the states cover a mix of different
demographic groups, referred to as protected classes, such as race and
sex or gender, in their bullying laws, while two states do not include any
protected classes. With respect to school districts, each of the six districts
we studied adopted policies that, among other things, prohibit bullying
and describe the potential consequences for engaging in the behavior.
Also, school district officials told us that they developed approaches to
prevent and respond to bullying. For example, several school officials
said they implemented a prevention-oriented framework to promote
positive school cultures. Both state and local officials expressed concerns
about various issues, including how best to address incidents that occur
outside of school.

We also found that while federal and state civil rights laws may offer
some protections against bullying in certain circumstances, vulnerable
groups may not always be covered. Federal civil rights laws can be used
to provide protections against bullying in certain circumstances, but some
vulnerable groups are not covered and therefore have no recourse at the
federal level. For example, federal agencies lack jurisdiction under civil
rights statutes to pursue discrimination cases based solely on
socioeconomic status or sexual orientation. Some state civil rights laws
provide protections to victims of bullying that go beyond federal law, but
federal complainants whose cases are dismissed for lack of jurisdiction
are not always informed by Education about the possibility of pursuing
claims at the state level.

Finally, regarding federal coordination efforts to combat bullying, we
found that a variety of efforts are under way, but that a full assessment of
legal remedies has not been completed. Specifically, Education, HHS,
and Justice have established coordinated efforts to carry out research
and disseminate information on bullying. For example, The Federal
Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee serves as a forum for
federal agencies to develop and share information with each other and

Page 3                                                             GAO-12-785T
the public, and http://www.stopbullying.gov consolidates the content of
different federal sites into one location to provide free materials for the
public. In addition to these efforts, Education has issued information
about how federal civil rights laws can be used to address bullying of
protected classes of youths and is conducting a comprehensive study of
state bullying laws and how selected school districts are implementing
them. However, no similar information is being gathered on state civil
rights laws and procedures that could be helpful in assessing the
adequacy of legal protections for victims of school bullying.

In conclusion, we found that the nature and extent of protections available
to students who are bullied depend on the laws and policies where they
live or go to school. Education and Justice have taken important steps in
assessing how federal civil rights laws can be applied and Education has
completed a study of state bullying laws, but neither agency has
assessed state civil rights laws and procedures as they may relate to
bullying. More information about state civil rights laws and procedures is a
key missing link that is needed by administration officials and decision
makers alike, to assess the extent of legal protections available to
students who have been bullied. Furthermore, while multiple efforts to
collect information about bullying have been under way for several years,
the prevalence of bullying of youths in certain vulnerable demographic
groups is not known. A greater effort by key federal agencies to develop
more information about the extent to which a broader range of
demographic groups are subject to bullying and bullying-related
discrimination would better inform federal efforts to prevent and remedy
bullying. This information, together with an assessment of federal and
state legal protections, could also aid policymakers in determining
whether additional actions are needed to protect vulnerable groups of
youths who are most often the target of school bullying.

To allow for a more comprehensive assessment of federal and state
efforts to address bullying, our report includes recommendations to
Education to compile information about state civil rights laws and
procedures that relate to bullying and to develop procedures to routinely
inform individuals who file complaints of discrimination stemming from
bullying about the potential availability of legal options under their state’s
anti-discrimination laws; and to Education, HHS, and Justice to develop
information about bullied demographic groups in their surveys of youth
and to use this information and other information from studies of state
bullying and civil rights laws to assess the extent to which legal
protections against bullying exist for vulnerable demographic groups.

Page 4                                                              GAO-12-785T
           Education and HHS generally agreed with our recommendations,
           although Education took issue with our recommendation that it compile
           information about state civil rights laws and procedures as they pertain to
           bullying. In response, we clarified that recommendation to address some
           of their concerns, but we continue to believe that a one-time compilation
           of state civil rights laws and procedures would be beneficial, and provide
           a basis, along with other information, for analyzing the overall legal
           protections that are available for vulnerable demographic groups. A more
           complete discussion of agency comments is provided in the report.

           Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Enzi, and Members of the
           Committee, this concludes my prepared remarks. I will be happy to
           answer any questions you may have.

           For future contacts regarding this statement, please contact Linda M.
           Calbom at (206) 287-4809 or calboml@gao.gov. Contact points for our
           Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on
           the last page of this statement. Bryon Gordon (Assistant Director),
           Ramona L. Burton (Analyst-in-Charge), Susannah Compton, Alex
           Galuten, Avani Locke, Ashley McCall, Sheila McCoy, Jean McSween,
           Mimi Nguyen, Karen O’Conor, Kate O’Dea, Michael Pahr, Rebecca Rose,
           Regina Santucci, Matthew Saradjian, Ronni Schwartz, and John Townes
           made significant contributions to the report on which this statement is

           Page 5                                                           GAO-12-785T
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