Earlier this week, a diverse coalition of religious and education groups led by the American Jewish Committee and Religious Freedom Education Project released a set of what they called bullying “guidelines.” While little actual advice was given, the guidelines suggested that bullying has little to do with the “disagreements” that happen between students and that priority should be given to ensuring that students’ religious condemnations of gay students have a fair hearing.
In response, the Anti-Defamation League urged Education Secretary Arne Duncan to disregard the guidelines because they are “ill-conceived, unnecessary, deeply flawed, and counter-productive to confronting the growing and serious problem of bullying and cyberbullying”:
Directly contrary to the Department’s Dear Colleague letter, however, the Guidelines issued this week emphasize students’ First Amendment rights over the responsibility to create a safe learning environment for all students — especially vulnerable minority, disabled, and LGBT students. While we agree that students’ free speech and religious expression rights are important, we strongly disagree with the Guidelines’ direct implication that such rights have been given short shrift in current federal and state law and policy and need greater protection.
The Guidelines issued this week have the word “Bullying” in their title, but break no new ground and offer no insights on preventing bullying. Even worse, they are tone-deaf as to the actual dynamics of real-world bullying in our nation’s private and public schools. Bullying situations very rarely erupt as conflicts over political or religious speech. Instead, they much more often involve the intentional targeting of an individual with less physical or social standing for physical or verbal abuse. Targeted students are in a very different power position than those doing the bullying. The aggressor’s objective is not to convince his/her target of the rightness of a policy position — it is, rather, to cause physical or emotional harm.
The ADL’s rebuke is significant because of the variety of religious organizations that had signed onto the guidelines. What’s most important is not protecting religious speech, but making sure that all students have a safe and welcoming environment in which to learn.