Tag Archives: Washington

Washington Invents an Anti-Bullying Law


image001111.jpgThere’s no federal law against bullying or homophobia.  So the Department of Education recently decided to invent one.  On October 26, it sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to the nation’s school districts arguing that many forms of homophobia and bullying violate federal laws against sexual harassment and discrimination.  But those laws only ban discrimination based on sex or race – not sexual orientation, or bullying in general.  The letter from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights twisted those laws, interpreting them so broadly as to cover not only bullying, but also a vast range of constitutionally protected speech, as well as conduct that the Supreme Court has held does not constitute harassment.  In so doing, it menaced academic freedom and student privacy rights, and thumbed its nose at the federal courts.

The letter successfully left the false impression that federal law already bans bullying and anti-gay harassment.  For example, a sympathetic news story reported that  “the Department of Education issued guidance to all school officials in October 2010, reminding them that federal law requires schools to take action against bullying–including . . . sexual harassment of LGBT students.”  The letter was part of a high-profile Obama Administration campaign against bullying, that recently culminated  in “a high-visibility conference on bullying prevention March 10, with the president and first lady” and the introduction by Administration allies of “several LGBT-inclusive bills designed to address bullying of students.”

But in reality, there is no federal ban on bullying, and no federal statute prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination.  Bills banning anti-gay discrimination, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, have yet to pass Congress.  Existing sexual harassment laws generally do not cover harassment aimed at gays based on their sexual orientation, as opposed to their gender – even if such harassment is sexual in nature.  As the Supreme Court emphasized in its 1998 Oncale decision, “workplace harassment” is not illegal sexual harassment “merely because the words used have sexual content”; instead, victims “must always prove that the conduct at issue was not merely tinged with offensive sexual connotations, but actually constituted discrimination ‘because of'” a victim’s “sex,” such that “members of one sex are” treated worse than “the other sex.”  Thus, federal courts have usually dismissed sexual harassment lawsuits brought by gay employees over bullying and foul language, in cases like Higgins v. New Balance (1999).

Harassment is legally defined even more narrowly in schools than workplaces.  In the workplace, harassment need only be severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile environment in order to be illegal.  A single, severe physical act can occasionally be enough for a lawsuit.

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A University With No Students?

A story in the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly about the demise last year, after its accreditation was pulled, of the financially and academically troubled Southeastern University in Washington, D.C., hit close to home. My home, actually, because I live just four blocks away from Southeastern’s decrepit single-building campus in Washington’s sleepy Southwest quadrant adjacent to the Potomac waterfront. A university calling itself “Southeastern” that’s really in Southwest Washington? That’s part’s of the mystery of Southeastern, founded in 1879 by the YMCA as a night school for working adults but somehow self-transformed into a “university” worthy of membership in the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the same organization whose Commission on Higher Education accredits Princeton and Johns Hopkins. Middle States had granted accreditation to Southeastern in 1977, and the university hung on for 32 years, until Middle States pulled the plug in March 2009, effectively killing the school.

But here is the most mysterious thing about Southeastern, as far as I’m concerned: During the seven years that I’d lived in Southwest Washington before the university shut its doors after a final summer session in 2009, I never saw a single student—or a single human being of any kind—enter or exit its campus. This was strange, because I walked by that campus several times a week at different hours of the day, on my way to my bank’s ATM machine or to the post office or a nearby Starbucks. Southeastern’s haphazardly landscaped Brutalist-period headquarters (nearly all of Southwest was torn down and then rebuilt in a disastrous 1950s experiment with urban renewal) that purported to house a bustling academic community was always as eerie as a ghost town, the little concrete plaza in front of its plate-glass doors empty, its none-too-clean windows blanks.

I knew that Southeastern remained in business mostly because it advertised profligately on Metro subway trains and in Metro stations: large posters featuring photos of happy cap-and-gown-wearing students plus assurances that you could go to Southeastern practically for free (at least until those loan repayments kicked in), thanks to the generous federal aid that accreditation from Middle States assured.

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A Painless Path To A College Degree

Operators of a diploma mill, convicted of selling 10,000 bogus academic degrees out of Spokane, Washington, are on their way to prison. The Justice department declined to release the names of buyers, saying that it was against policy, but the Spokesman-Review made the complete list public today on its website. The buyers include at least 135 people with ties to the military, 39 with educational institutions and 17 with government agencies, including one from NASA , one from the CIA (a contract employee) and a military adviser working at the White House. Half the buyers were from overseas, with a majority of the “students” from Saudi Arabia. Many bought four or more degrees. The top customer, Anthony McGugan of Barnegat, New Jersey, bought 16, including a masters and doctorate in theology, a masters in social work, bachelor’s degrees in human services and biblical studies and certificates in addiction counseling and social development. A total of 826 purchasers bought at least one PhD. The fictional colleges and universities listed as granting the degrees included St. Regis (the top choice), Valorem, Eucharist Diocese, Cincinnati Technical College, the University of the Punjab and Holy Acclaim University. Some 375 of the purchasers bought high school degrees.