School Bullying and Legal Protections for Vulnerable Groups

Education Thumbnail imageMillions of American children and teens have been physically, verbally, relationally, or electronically bullied by their peers. Bullying can have harmful psychological, academic, and behavioral outcomes for victims. Because October is National Bullying Prevention Month, we wanted to highlight our report on school bullying and legal protections for vulnerable groups.

Defining Bullying to Improve Research

To determine the prevalence of bullying nationwide, officials from the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services told us that they would need a uniform definition of bullying. In our 2012 report, we found differences in definitions in 4 major federal research surveys used to study bullying. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and its research partners recently developed a uniform definition of bullying.

We also found that while the surveys we reviewed collected some information about the demographic characteristics of bullied students, such as gender and race, they did not consistently collect information on characteristics such as sexual orientation or gender identity. This makes it difficult to determine the extent to which vulnerable demographic groups are being bullied. We recommended that the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services collect this type of information, and they have taken steps to do so.

Challenges for Schools Dealing with Bullying

School districts are adopting policies that prohibit bullying but are facing several challenges, including:

  • difficulty dealing with out-of-school incidents, such as cyberbullying;
  • confusion among parents and children about the difference between bullying and conflict; and
  • state and federal budget cuts that affect funding for bullying prevention teacher training programs.

Bullying and the Law

When bullying rises to the level of discrimination, federal civil rights laws may cover individuals in legally-protected groups. Federal civil rights laws do not cover all children in all educational settings, and as a result, where a student goes to school could affect the student’s ability to file a federal discrimination claim. The table below highlights federal civil rights laws relevant to school bullying.


Excerpted from GAO-12-349

As with federal civil rights laws, states’ civil rights laws offer some protections, but some demographic groups may not always be covered. We recommended that the Department of Education compile information about state civil rights laws and procedures that relate to bullying, and inform complainants about state legal options. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights now informs people whose complaints are dismissed for lack of jurisdiction that they may have possible recourse under state or local laws.

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Watching Out for Federal Cybersecurity

thumbnail_information_securityThe federal government relies on computer networks and systems to provide essential services affecting the health, economy, and defense of the nation. Incidents of hacking or cyber attacks place sensitive information at risk, with potentially serious effects on federal and military operations; critical infrastructure; and government, private sector, and individual privacy. The Department of Homeland Security has designated October as National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. To mark the month, we are highlighting some of our findings on federal cybersecurity efforts.

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Podcast on Food Safety and Reducing Pathogens in Poultry

GAO Podcast IconThe U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, yet the CDC estimates that pathogens like salmonella in contaminated food, especially poultry, cause more than 2 million human illnesses per year.

Hear our podcast with Alfredo Gomez, a director in GAO’s Natural Resources and Environment team, who led a recent review of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approach to reducing pathogens in poultry products.

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Flu Season Is Here!

Thumbnail Health CareIt’s the start of fall, the leaves are starting to change color, and the days are getting shorter. But fall also means the return of seasonal influenza—it’s flu season. Getting the flu vaccine is one of the best ways you can protect yourself against the flu. Earlier is better so you and others are protected before the season begins. However, getting vaccinated even in December or later still helps, because flu season lasts into early spring. Check out some of our findings on public health issues related to flu season.

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Addressing Global Hunger

thumbnail international affairsIn 1979, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) designated October 16th as World Food Day to bring attention to the crisis of global hunger. According to FAO, there are more than 800 million people around the world who are chronically malnourished. The United States is the largest donor of international food assistance, spending about $2 billion per year to provide food assistance to countries where people are facing food shortages and malnutrition. In addition, the United States tries to help with emergency food aid to address humanitarian crises, such as the current crisis in Syria, and with programs that support agricultural development. We have reviewed several of these U.S. programs to address global hunger. Here are some of our key findings:

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Controlling Costs for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

thumbnail_defenseFrom acquisition to operations and maintenance, Department of Defense weapons programs are consistently of interest to the federal government and the public. Since 2000, we have been assessing DOD’s most costly weapons program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The defense acquisition best practices we have developed have helped us recommend ways to control costs for such an ambitious program.

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October is National Dental Hygiene Month

Thumbnail Health CareAs autumn brings the chocolates, lollipops, and other sweets that come with Halloween, this is an excellent time to remember your teeth! October is National Dental Hygiene Month, which highlights the importance of keeping your mouth, teeth, and gums clean and healthy to prevent tooth decay and disease. We have issued several reports related to dental health and children’s access to dental services.

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GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Team

thumbnail_homeland_securityGAO’s workforce is organized largely by subject area, with most employees working in 1 of 14 mission teams, many of which we have highlighted on the WatchBlog. Today we’ll be putting the spotlight on the Homeland Security & Justice (HSJ) team, which works on issues such as border security and immigration, emergency preparedness and response, and justice and law enforcement.

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The Future of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship

thumbnail_defenseSince 2004, the Navy has been working on acquiring a new class of ship intended to provide surface combat capabilities near the shore (the littoral zone). The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) was intended to have lower acquisition costs and to use innovative manning, training, and maintenance concepts. These concepts would minimize crew size and reduce operating costs over the long term. While previous surface combat ships had specialized equipment built into them for different missions, the LCS was designed to be reconfigurable for 3 different types of missions. As this new ship program continues to produce ships, we have been reporting on concerns and risks related to the Navy’s purchase and deployment of the LCS.

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United States Partners with African Countries to Counter Terrorist Threats

thumbnail international affairsFrom the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, to recent al Qaeda and Boko Haram attacks in Northwest Africa, events have suggested that both regions are vulnerable to terrorism and violent extremism. The United States provides training and equipment to military and law enforcement agencies in partner countries, and works with local populations at risk of becoming involved in violent radicalization. We issued two reports this year on U.S. regional programs in East Africa and Northwest Africa. These programs are helping improve the ability of African countries to counter terrorist groups, but both need stronger program management from the State Department to meet their goals and protect taxpayer dollars.

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