Millions of students in public schools experience hostile behavior like hate speech, hate crimes, bullying, or assaults every year. The Department of Education (DoED) has been proactive in resolving hostile behavior complaints faster in recent years.
However, there has been an increase in dismissed complaints leading to fewer filings. According to civil rights experts, this trend has led to a lack of confidence in the DoED’s ability to address the issue of civil rights violations in American public schools.
The Extent of the Problem
According to a Government Accountability Office (GOA) report, physical attacks, sexual assaults, and other violent behavior has seen a significant rise in American schools in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the report, GOA cited that one in five students between the ages of 12 and 18 experienced bullying in school years 2014-15, 2016-17, and 2018-19. For every one in four of the students that were victims of bullying in the 2018-19 school year, the bullying was related to their national origin, race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.
Today’s school climate is surprisingly better compared to a few decades ago. According to data collected in the past few decades, there has been a tremendous improvement in the school climate. In a report published in 2019 by the DoED in collaboration with the Department of Justice (DOJ), incidences of theft, assaults, and other violent behaviors reported had dropped significantly compared to the 90s.
Students in Middle School and Smaller Schools Are Most Affected
Bullying does not only affect the students to whom it is directed. According to the CDC, even individuals who observe the bullying without participating in or experiencing it first-hand are affected.
The data collected by GOA showed that bullying and other hostile behaviors occurred in every school; however, students in middle school were more likely to experience bullying than their peers in high school. The data also showed that students in significantly smaller schools were more likely to experience bullying than their counterparts in relatively larger schools.
The GOA report came in response to a request from the House Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott. Scott directed GOA to investigate hostile behaviors in public schools and how the different school administrations respond to them. “This report confirms what we knew to be true; many students are targeted and bullied by other students for who they love, how they worship, or how they look,” said the vice-chair of the House Education Committee, Jamal Bowman.
Underreporting of Offenses
Even as bad as the situation may look based on the statistics, experts believe that many more cases could go unreported. According to criminal defense lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman, “This reluctance to report bullying and hostile behavior incidents are mostly attributed to a lack of confidence in the DoED’s ability to resolve the problem.” Civil rights advocates also believe that the Trump Administration’s approach to the Office of Civil Rights in the DoED is also partly to blame for the low rates of case reporting.
But there is hope as the Biden Administration is keen on backtracking some of the wrongs done in the Trump era and ensuring that American students feel safe in their schools.