Dear Colleague letter on bullying

The Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) “Dear Colleague letter” was sent to thousands of school districts in America, implicitly threatening to cut off federal aid unless schools micromanage almost all student interactions, including violating their First Amendment rights. OCR’s “guidance” on the prevention of student-led harassment and bullying go far beyond OCR’s authority under federal civil rights law. Although teasing and bullying is an important concern for local schools, parents and students, the letter undermines efforts to combat it at the state and local level with illegal federal standards. The OCR letter attempts to expand OCR’s authority by misinterpreting many aspects of the Supreme Court’s precedents regarding federal liability for “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” harassment that schools have “actual notice of” and were “deliberately indifferent” to. Among other problems, it attempts to make a federal offense of “eye rolling” and private Facebook posts that are not objectively offensive, and which OCR believes the school “reasonably should have known” about. The guidance also raises a rash of First Amendment problems since it covers protected private communications after school hours, including on the Internet, that are not threatening. The letter contradicted OCR’s past guidance and received sharp criticism from civil liberties and civil rights experts.