Ensuring That All Students Have A Safe Place To Learn

This blog has previously highlighted some of the obstacles that Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) youth face in obtaining equal educational opportunities here and here. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education is deeply committed to addressing all of these issues. As our nation’s youth head back to school this month, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you about our work on preventing bullying and harassment.

Early on in my career, when I was at the Department of Justice, I worked on a case which involved extensive harassment, including physical violence, against Asian American high school students.  Many of the students were recent immigrants and limited English proficient.  It was through that case that I saw both the harm that can occur to students who have been harassed and the bravery of students who stand up for their rights

OCR enforces our nation’s civil rights laws in schools to ensure that students are not discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or age.  OCR investigates complaints of discrimination, conducts proactive compliance reviews, provides technical assistance, and issues policy guidance to help schools understand their legal obligations.  OCR also conducts the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to collect data on key civil rights issues in public schools.  Each of these tools is essential to addressing issues that affect AAPI students.

OCR is committed to ensuring that all students have safe environments in which to learn.  In October 2010, OCR published guidance on bullying and harassment, clarifying when such conduct triggers responsibilities under federal civil rights laws.  After this letter was issued, OCR received almost as many complaints alleging harassment against AAPI students in the first half of fiscal year 2011 as we did in all of fiscal year 2010.

We have also conducted extensive outreach to the community.  We have participated in many events over the past year, including:

  • An outreach meeting with 28 AAPI community groups;
  • The White House Conference on Bullying Prevention;
  • The 2011 South Asian Summit;
  • An AAPI LGBT Pride and Heritage Event hosted by the White House; and
  • A White House Initiative on AAPIs webinar with the Department of Justice.

We are keeping this momentum going this fall.  We participated in the second annual Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit this week and will participate in a bullying summit hosted by the White House Initiative on AAPIs in October.

In addition, OCR has improved the data that we collect under the CRDC, including on incidents of bullying and harassment.  OCR has implemented significant changes in how data is collected on the race and ethnicity of students.  In the past, school districts have reported all AAPI students using a single category, “Asian/Pacific Islander.”  Beginning in 2010-2011, all school districts were required to use a list of racial and ethnic categories that included separate categories for “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander.”  This change will enable us to gather more targeted data on the AAPI community.

We are grateful to the White House Initiative on AAPIs for highlighting the unmet needs of the AAPI community.  We look forward to continuing our work to ensure that all students have the opportunity to go to school, learn in a safe environment, and obtain the educational foundation they need to become tomorrow’s leaders.  Please visit http://www.ed.gov/ocr to find out more about OCR and the civil rights laws we enforce.  You can also request technical assistance, if needed.

Sunil Mansukhani is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education.

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