Bully!

If schoolyard bullying is a federal issue, then everything must be, right? But in the eyes of the Obama administration, everything is a federal issue.

The Obama administration has taken a keen interest in what otherwise has to be the most local of issues. Last year, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in which she threatened school districts that don’t do enough to prevent schoolyard bullying. The letter makes it clear that simply punishing bullies who harass others on account of their race, sex, national origin or disability is not enough. Schools must wipe out the culture of bullying.

Ali repeatedly urges extensive teacher training and “age-appropriate” programs for students designed to diffuse tensions over race, sex, national origin and disability issues. This is sure to be a boondoggle benefiting the groups that provide such training (including many of the organizations that lobbied for federal action).

Ali’s letter makes it clear that bullying includes any conduct -– whether intended to harmful or not -– that creates a “hostile environment” for students. It need not necessarily be severe. It certainly need not be violent. If it somehow interferes with a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from some school activity, it is covered. Teasing? You bet. Eye-rolling? Rumor mongering? All of it can constitute bullying. All of it can get schools in hot water with the federal government.

Earlier this year, Obama himself convened a full-scale White House conference on bullying, which highlighted initiatives by the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, and others. “I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune,” Obama told the crowd. “I didn’t emerge unscathed.” This is an issue with which Obama wants to have his name associated.

Try to imagine George Washington convening a conference on playground bullies. Just try. Or better yet Andrew Jackson. Or Teddy “Bully!” Roosevelt.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a long, ponderous report on bullying yesterday. As you might guess, the commission has had a change in personnel since last year, when it issued a highly-critical report on the Department of Justice’s handling of the New Black Panther Party case. The new report is short on new material or new ideas; it is clear that the commission now sees its job as supporting the Obama administration’s initiatives. The only bright spots were the dissenting opinions of Commission holdovers Todd Gaziano, Gail Heriot, and Peter Kirsanow.

Commissioner Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, writes:

Remember when children used to say “Don’t make a federal case out of it”? In those days, even fourth graders understood that not every problem is best dealt with at the federal level.”

Commissioner Heriot predicts that Department of Education’s bullying policy will lead to the same kind of “zero tolerance” policies that the Department’s sexual harassment policy has already led to and that common sense as well as the First Amendment are likely to suffer further. In Maryland alone, in the 2007-2008 school year, 166 elementary school students, including 16 first graders and 22 first graders were suspended for “sexual harassment.”

I would like to be able to say that it doesn’t get any sillier than that –- sending kindergartners home for hugging the teacher too enthusiastically. But it does.

According to the Daily Mail, more than 20,000 British youngsters, aged 11 and younger were reported last year to the authorities for using “racist” or “homophobic” language in school. The British government now keeps a register of all such “hate crimes” incidents.

One child, for example, was accused of racism for calling another child a “broccoli head.” All of this is the result of U.K. anti-bullying policies. It can get sillier here in the good old US of A. Just you wait. The Obama administration is moving us a giant step closer to that.

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