Bullying on the basis of disability and a slew of other factors is not only wrong, federal officials are reminding educators, but in many cases it’s also against the law.

In a letter to schools, colleges and universities sent Tuesday, Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, outlined the legal obligations that school staff have to protect students from peer harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex or disability.

“Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name‐calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet; or other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful or humiliating,” Ali wrote. “A school is responsible for addressing harassment incidents about which it knows or reasonably should have known.”

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The 10-page letter includes examples of situations that may be illegal and the appropriate steps for schools to take when harassment is suspected.

The federal government efforts come amid growing national concern about bullying in schools fueled by several high profile cases of students who committed suicide after being taunted.

In addition to the guidance issued Tuesday in Ali’s letter to educators, the Department of Education will also be holding workshops across the country early next year to help school officials understand their legal responsibilities and learn about steps they can take to prevent problems on campus.

“No one should ever feel harassed or unsafe in a school simply because they act or think or dress differently than others,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “To every student who feels threatened or harassed — for whatever reason — please know that you are not alone. Please know that there are people who love you. And please know that we will protect you.”

Since 2008, the Department of Education has received 890 complaints alleging harassment on the basis of disability.

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