MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

My thanks to Jacki Lyden for sitting in for these past couple of days. Sheryl Crow is on the program today. The singer, songwriter and activist is touring in support of her new CD. And she stopped by our studios long enough to tell us more about what she's up to right now. That is later.

But, first, we want to spend some time talking about two important stories affecting the lives of gay and lesbian people in this country and overseas. In a minute we will hear from that newspaper editor in Uganda who plans to publish the names of 100 people he believes are gay and lesbian. He started with 11 names and he called for all of the people on this list to be hanged. We'll find out why.

But starting here in the U.S., the series of suicides by students who killed themselves after being harassed around issues of sexual orientation. Recently the Office of Civil Rights at the Education Department issued a dear colleague letter reminding educators that federal law generally protects students from that kind of harassment. And that harassment could include verbal taunting, name calling, graphic or written statements, use of cell phones or the internet. All of that could fall under the Civil Rights Act.

To learn more about what constitutes discrimination and how the government believes schools should respond when bullying occurs, we've called the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights, Russlynn Ali. She wrote the letter of guidance for schools and she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RUSSLYNN ALI (Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Department of Education): Hello, Michel, it's a delight to be here.

MARTIN: Was it your understanding that educators might not know that this behavior might fall under the Civil Rights Act? Or was it your sense that they might know and weren't sure how to respond or how serious it is? What was your sense of it?

Ms. ALI: Both. Our intent was to provide support to school districts, school leaders, college and university faculty and presidents across the country. Now, the truth is we have heard and received questions about issues of bullying and harassment directed towards students that are members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender community.

Some, in fact, did believe that because bullying and harassment was targeted at those students, it somehow didn't fall under the federal civil rights laws because we don't hold jurisdiction over sexual orientation.

MARTIN: That was going to be my question. What is the department's jurisdiction? Because the Civil Rights Act doesn't specifically name sexual orientation and federal law doesn't specifically have jurisdiction. So I'd like to ask, what is the guidance here?

Ms. ALI: We enforce over discrimination against students based on race, color and national origin under Title XI of the Civil Rights Act, based on sex under Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act, and based on disability under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. That said, much of the bullying and harassment directed toward students that are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is in fact not because of their sexual orientation. It's because they are not conforming to what some hold as traditional gender stereotypes.

Boys are acting effeminate. Girls are participating in traditionally male activities. And so they are bullied and harassed because of that. That in fact is discrimination based on sex.

MARTIN: Let me just play a short clip of a student who graduated from a school near Minneapolis last year. And the language, I have to say, is strong. So some who are listening might not consider it appropriate for everybody who is listening at the moment. But the teen's name is Justin Anderson. The clip was featured in a story on NPR earlier this week where he was describing the kind of behavior that I think this letter is directed towards. So, let's play it.

Mr. JUSTIN ANDERSON: I mean, Im hearing people say things like, fags should just disappear so we don't have to deal with them anymore. And fags are disgusting and sinful. And, still, there's nobody intervening. And I began to feel so worthless and ashamed and unloved that I began to think about taking my life.

MARTIN: And obviously any reasonable person would think, nobody should go to school feeling this way. But the other side of this question for some people is that this directive bumps up against the free speech rights of persons who may have religious beliefs about same sex relationships. And that the department is stacking the deck in a way so that persons who have a particular religious orientation are now silenced in expressing that. Has this question come up? I think it probably has.

Ms. ALI: Indeed it has. And it's something that we have wrestled with and thought about. Every case is fact specific and fact intensive. It will require a thorough investigation, both on the part of the Office for Civil Rights, if it is brought to our attention or if we otherwise intervene, and the part of school leaders and faculty.

Every case also must comply with the First Amendment. Many schools do have anti-bullying policies that cover a variety of bullying, all bullying, not withstanding whether it's protected by the federal civil rights education laws. And they should have such policies in place because all students need to feel safe to learn. All students need to feel accepted, notwithstanding how they dress, how they act or what they look like.

MARTIN: And, finally, I wanted to ask, what is your goal in sending out this letter at this time? Is it to put educators on notice that there may be additional scrutiny if they fail to intervene in bullying? Or is it merely to advise them that there are tools to address that they may not have considered? Or what it is to sort of lift the level of priority on this kind of bullying?

Ms. ALI: It is all of the above. First, we want to help them understand what their obligations are. Second, we want make the public aware that we all have a role to play in ensuring that our schools and universities are safe for everybody.

MARTIN: Russlynn Ali is the assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education. This week she offered guidance to school districts and colleges related to discriminatory harassment and bullying. If you want to read the dear colleague letter in its entirety, we'll have a link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org. Click on Programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Russlynn Ali was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ALI: Thank you, Michel.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.