Saturday, June 18, 2011

Duncan Issues "Dear Colleague Letter" on Sexually-based Harassment and GSAs

This from the US Department of Education:

June 14, 2011

Dear Colleagues:

Harassment and bullying are serious problems in our schools, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students are the targets of disproportionate shares of these problems. Thirty-two percent of students aged 12-18 experienced verbal or physical bullying during the 2007-2008 school year;1 and, according to a recent survey, more than 90 percent of LGBT students in grades 6 through 12 reported being verbally harassed — and almost half reported being physically harassed — during the 2008-2009 school year.2 High levels of harassment and bullying correlate with poorer educational outcomes, lower future aspirations, frequent school absenteeism, and lower grade-point averages.3 Recent tragedies involving LGBT students and students perceived to be LGBT only underscore the need for safer schools.

Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and similar student-initiated groups addressing LGBT issues can play an important role in promoting safer schools and creating more welcoming learning environments. Nationwide, students are forming these groups in part to combat bullying and harassment of LGBT students and to promote understanding and respect in the school community. Although the efforts of these groups focus primarily on the needs of LGBT students, students who have LGBT family members and friends, and students who are perceived to be LGBT, messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all our students. By encouraging dialogue and providing supportive resources, these groups can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.

But in spite of the positive effect these groups can have in schools, some such groups have been unlawfully excluded from school grounds, prevented from forming, or denied access to school resources. These same barriers have sometimes been used to target religious and other student groups, leading Congress to pass the Equal Access Act.

In 1984, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Equal Access Act, requiring public secondary schools to provide equal access for extracurricular clubs. Rooted in principles of equal treatment and freedom of expression, the Act protects student-initiated groups of all types. As one of my predecessors, Secretary Richard W. Riley, pointed out in guidance concerning the Equal Access Act and religious clubs more than a decade ago, we “protect our own freedoms by respecting the freedom of others who differ from us.”4 By allowing students to discuss difficult issues openly and honestly, in a civil manner, our schools become forums for combating ignorance, bigotry, hatred, and discrimination.

The Act requires public secondary schools to treat all student-initiated groups equally, regardless of the religious, political, philosophical, or other subject matters discussed at their meetings. Its protections apply to groups that address issues relating to LGBT students and matters involving sexual orientation and gender identity, just as they apply to religious and other student groups.

Today, the U.S. Department of Education’s General Counsel, Charles P. Rose, is issuing a set of legal guidelines affirming the principles that prevent unlawful discrimination against any student-initiated groups. We intend for these guidelines to provide schools with the information and resources they need to help ensure that all students, including LGBT and gender nonconforming students, have a safe place to learn, meet, share experiences, and discuss matters that are important to them.

Although specific implementation of the Equal Access Act depends upon contextual circumstances, these guidelines reflect basic obligations imposed on public school officials by the Act and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The general rule, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court, is that a public high school that allows at least one noncurricular student group to meet on school grounds during noninstructional time (e.g., lunch, recess, or before or after school) may not deny similar access to other noncurricular student groups, regardless of the religious, political, philosophical, or other subject matters that the groups address.

I encourage every school district to make sure that its administrators, faculty members, staff, students, and parents are familiar with these principles in order to protect the rights of all students — regardless of religion, political or philosophical views, sexual orientation, or gender identity. I also urge school districts to use the guidelines to develop or improve district policies. In doing so, school officials may find it helpful to explain to the school community that the Equal Access Act requires public schools to afford equal treatment to all noncurricular student organizations, including GSAs and other groups that focus on issues related to LGBT students, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Officials need not endorse any particular student organization, but federal law requires that they afford all student groups the same opportunities to form, to convene on school grounds, and to have access to the same resources available to other student groups.

The process of revising or developing an equal-access policy offers an opportunity for school officials to engage their community in an open dialogue on the equal treatment of all noncurricular student organizations. It is important to remember, therefore, that the Equal Access Act’s requirements are a bare legal minimum. I invite and encourage you to go beyond what the law requires in order to increase students’ sense of belonging in the school and to help students, teachers, and parents recognize the core values behind our principles of free speech. As noted in our October 2010 Dear Colleague Letter and December 2010 guidance regarding anti-bullying policies, I applaud such policies as positive steps toward ensuring equal access to education for all students.

Thank you for your work on behalf of our nation’s children.



Arne Duncan

1Dinkes, R., Kemp, J., and Baum, K. (2010). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2010. (NCES 2010-012/NCJ 228478). 42 National Center for Education Statistics: Washington, DC.

2Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Diaz, E. M., and Bartkiewicz, M. J. (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation’s schools, 26, New York: GLSEN.

3GLSEN, at 46-8.

4U.S. Department of Education, “Secretary’s Guidelines on Religious Expression in Public Schools,” August 1995,


Anonymous said...

A hearty thank you, Richard!

FCPS administators should take note!

Dylan Miskell said...

As a society, we should be concentrating a lot of attention on childhood bullying and harassment. To visually watch a child being trodden by bullying, we often feel powerless. But there are ways to stop bullying once and for all. “According to world-wide research, 50% reductions in rates of bullying are possible.”There are modest needs to explain why our school systems want to stop childhood bullying. Adolescence who bully regularly during childhood are more likely to be hostile and to have criminal records later on in life. The unsurpassed, most clear way to discontinue bullying in schools is for parents to alter the way the parent interacts with their child at home. Bullies often come from homes where physical punishment is second-hand and children have been taught that physical violence is the way to handle problems. Therefore as teachers and assistants we must aid in any way possible to stop violence in the homes of our loving children, not only for there overall health as a human being but for there future ass well.

Maggi Payne said...

I think this is a wonderful thing and this was said in a wonderful way as well. I do not understand why sexual orientation and gender identity is a big deal. Every person has the right to choose who they want to be and who they want to be with, and it does not affect anyone else. Not only should young people not be bullied in the school because of their religion or things they are involved in but they should also not be bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. People need to be more accepting, it upsets me that people can be this way.

Courtney Compton said...

I believe that this is a great for public schools and student age children. I believe a lot of problems that occur with bullying and harassment is solely because a person feels alone and different than everyone else. If groups can form without schools officials turning them down because they don't "agree" with the students, then students will not have to feel so alone. It is also good for students to learn about diversity and how people are very different early on in life so that way when they get out in the world it will not be as much of a shocker to them. I believe that this is a great thing and the ACT will really help with bullying and harassment in the future.

Kristen Jones said...

First, I want to say that bullying is a very serious issue and should not be looked upon lightly, for anyone. I do not understand where these rampant acts of bullying are coming from but it needs to stop. Our society seems to shun anyone who is different and our children are just following by example. Student clubs, not matter if LBGT or prayer circle, none should be excluded from coming together and peacefully sharing time together. I think that clubs like these are important for students to share their experiences with those who may feel the same way and not feel like they may be all alone.

Byron Teater said...

All bullying should be stopped, no matter who you are; however we all know that will never happen. There are far too many ways to bully now, Facebook, email, at school, or any other way you can think of. A teacher cannot monitor everything for everyone, at some point the student that is being bullied must find a way to stand up for themselves. Note I did not say fight, they can organize several students that are like them, and there is power in numbers. A student should feel safe to go to school, able to learn in an environment that is safe and welcoming. I will go as far as to say this if you’re being bullied you need to know how to defend yourself so that you will not be physically harmed.

Kristin Williams said...

Bulling has always been a serious issue and can lead to traumatic and deadly consequences. In my high school there was an situation were a student was bullied because they were gay and ended up committing suicide. After their death are school formed a Gay-Straight Alliance in hopes that students would have a place to come to and be happy and accepted. Every student should be able to have access to a club that promotes awareness of any topic or issue.

Jeff said...

I believe Duncan's "Dear Colleague Letter" is very much needed in light of what is going on in American schools today. Bullying is at an all-time high, and it is more serious today because for one, our schools are more diverse than they ever have been. Not only racially, but as this letter addresses, there are an increasing number of LBGT students in our schools, and they need to be respected and need to feel safe at school. Cyber-bullying is another form of bullying that has really come on strong in recent years, and it is a very serious issue that has been the cause of numerous teen suicides across the country. Our media has been doing a good job about promoting anti-bullying advertisements, and I think this "Dear Colleague Letter" is another step in the right direction for putting a stop to all the bullying and harassment of different groups of people in our schools.

Bryce Bradford said...

This letter raises a very important and rising issue, not only with young students but with all gays and lesbians. But this letter is extremely important in raising awareness of the ongoing harassment of young students as they are having their education disrupted by this bullying. I do give credit to this letter and also for mainstream media for recognizing that this type of discrimination and bullying is becoming a greater issue. They are even having commercials out like Wanda Sykes and Grant Hill to help erase the free use of the word gay. With comedian Tracy Morgan's recent rant about gays, it is important that we do not make light of what could lead to bullying and even worse occurrences.

Jody said...

I think that Duncan has the right idea of how bullying occurs in our school systems. After reading this particular article I was shocked to see how many students actually get bullied in American. Schools should be a safe learning area for any child. Sadly, students dread to come due to another. From a early age, I think that children should be taught that it is ok to be diffrent from another, and that social status or other statuses should not matter. The only thing that should matter is how they treat one another. With this in mind, I think that bullying rates could possibly decrease. Creating more and more programs would be highly benifical.