The U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a lawsuit against a school district in Minnesota that’s been somewhat notorious for failing to stop harassment and bullying of its students, especially students who are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. The complaint against the district seeks legal recourse based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and on federal laws prohibiting inequality in schools. Unfortunately, though, none of these laws explicitly mention sexual orientation.
No one who experiences school bullying or peer harassment is fortunate, but at least Oregon residents do have a more specific legal remedy to stop harassment or bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Under ORS 659.850, Oregon law generally prohibits “discrimination” in public schools, which means school administrators cannot engage in “any act that unreasonably differentiates treatment, intended or unintended, or any act that is fair in form but discriminatory in operation, either of which is based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, age or disability.” (Oregon statutes also define “sexual orientation” as “an individual’s actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality or gender identity, regardless of whether the individual’s gender identity, appearance, expression or behavior differs from that traditionally associated with the individual’s sex at birth.” ORS 174.100(6).)
Although school administrators may not be the aggressors in most bullying situations, their failure to stop severe ongoing harassment could certainly run afoul of the law. Similar to employment discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, there are a number of legal avenues a person can take to stop school bullying and harassment. A civil rights or employment attorney can help deal directly with school administrators, help notify state authorities and agencies, and even help initiate a lawsuit when appropriate. Regardless of the remedy, though, Oregon students and their families do not have to accept discrimination and harassment in the school environment any more than they do in the workplace.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on March 5, 2012.