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By Marta Lawrence
Bullying could be a violation of civil rights, and schools and universities are obligated to take appropriate steps to end harassment, according to a recent clarification letter issued by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Failure to stop the behavior and remediate the victim could be a violation of:
Although race, sex and disability are the only characteristics triggering obligation under civil rights law, the letter encourages schools to also appropriately address discrimination and violence of all types, including those related to sexual orientation.
According to the letter, “Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet; or other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful or humiliating.”
Importantly, the letter points out, “Harassment does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents.” To qualify as harassment, the action “creates a hostile environment when the conduct is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent, so as to interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or opportunities offered by a school.”
When a school learns of harassment, it must act immediately, which could include separating the harasser from his or her target, providing counseling or taking disciplinary action.“The OCR guidance is clear and helpful,” NCAA Director of Gender Inclusion Initiatives Karen Morrison said. “Our members can also refer to the NCAA’s online Gender Equity Manual for information.” The manual will be revised to include the recent Office for Civil Rights information.
The letter comes on the heels of several high-profile cases of violence relating to student-athletes, including a recent incident involving a Baylor basketball player who allegedly broke his girlfriend’s jaw in a domestic dispute. Last May, a Virginia lacrosse player was arrested for killing his girlfriend, also a lacrosse player.
In response to these incidents, NCAA President Mark Emmert has made reducing violence on campus a priority for the Association. In a recent interview on ESPN, Emmert addressed the domestic violence issue with host Dana O’Neil.
“We’ve done a great job in terms of educating and working on alcohol abuse and drug abuse,” he said. “We haven’t done everything we can in regards to domestic violence and we absolutely have to. One incident is one too many.”
Emmert will host a panel discussion on solutions to campus violence at the NCAA Convention in January.
In addition, the NCAA Executive Committee has charged the Committee on Sportsmanship and Ethical Conduct, the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport, the Committee on Women’s Athletics, the Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee and all three divisional Student-Athlete Advisory Committees to take up the issue of violence during their next meetings.
The NCAA sponsors various anti-violence and anti-hazing programs to provide member institutions with the tools necessary to combat violent activity on campus. “STEP UP!” is a joint program by the NCAA and the University of Arizona to educate students to be active in helping others.
Also, APPLE conferences, presented by the Center for Alcohol and Substance Education, are dedicated to substance-abuse prevention and health promotion for student athletes and athletics department administrators. Alcohol abuse has been linked to issues of violence.