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GAO Report Questions Whether Bullying Laws Protect All Students

A new Government Accountability Office report about bullying recommends additional action by the U.S. Department of Education and the attorney general, and says more study is needed to determine whether existing laws go far enough in protecting all students from bullying at school.

The GAO report was done at the request of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and chairman of the Senate education committee, and committee members Robert Casey, D-Penn., Al Franken, D-Minn., and and Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Analyzing a number of surveys about bullying, the GAO found that there are questions about the extent to which bullying affects certain groups of youths relative to others. There was no significant difference in the percentage of boys and girls that reported being bullied, according to two surveys, while another noted that girls were bullied at a higher percentage. In two of the three surveys, white students reported being bullied at a higher percentage than black youths, while another survey found no significant difference.

And the report found cases where Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 apply to discrimination based on gender identity. However, they haven't been used to address discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, and the Justice department said discrimination based on sexual orientation is not covered under Titles IV or IX.

"This report further confirms the need for a law to protect our children from anti-gay bullying and discrimination," Franken said in a statement. "My Student Non-Discrimination Act would protect [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] children from bullying in the same way that kids are already protected from bullying because of their race, gender, disability, and religion. I hope my colleagues take this new information to heart and join with the White House and the 37 other senators who are currently supporting the bill so we can finally pass a law to protect some of our nation's most vulnerable children."

My colleague Alyson Klein noted that Franken originally intended to offer the legislation as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during a markup of the bill last fall, but he withdrew the proposal, saying he had been told that it could jeopardize bipartisan support for the underlying bill. Instead, Franken agreed to work with Kirk, one of three Republicans who voted for the ESEA renewal, to tweak the amendment so that it could garner broader support.

The GAO made several recommendations in its report, including a one-time study—similar to one by the Education Department of state bullying laws—about state civil rights laws and procedures, as they may pertain to bullying. As of April, the Education Department said 49 states have adopted school bullying laws. But some do not specify who is protected The GAO reports looks closely at laws in eight states: Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Vermont, and Virginia.

As it has compiled information about state bullying laws, the Education Department also should compile information about state civil rights laws and procedures that relate to bullying, the GAO said (although ED said this is out of its range of expertise and its jurisdiction), but it is considering another recommendation that it inform individuals who file complaints of discrimination stemming from bullying about the potential availability of legal options under their state's anti-discrimination laws.

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