Feds Anti-Bully Plan

Minnesota’s largest school district will take wide-ranging steps to protect LGBT students from bullying and harassment under the terms of a settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Dept. of  Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

The Anoka-Hennepin School Board approved the proposed settlement on Monday but it must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen to take effect. The federal agencies will monitor the district’s compliance with the agreement until 2017.

The settlement is  significant with respect to the problem of workplace bullying for two reasons.

It sheds light on what the DOJ and the OCR deem to be important steps to address the general problem of harassment.

And the feds based their lawsuit on alleged violations of laws that potentially could apply to targets of workplace bullying — Discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S.Constitution; Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000c–2000c-9 (Title IV), and; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681–1688 (Title IX).

There are major differences between how the law treats students and adults but the Minnesota school settlement could be interpreted as evidence that society no longer condones bullying and harassment on the basis of sex or perceived sexual orientation. If that is the case, harassment of this type should not be acceptable in either schools or the workplace.

Authorities began investigating the Anoka-Hennepin School District in 2010 after receiving a complaint that it had failed to adequately address peer-on-peer harassment on the basis of sex and sexual orientation. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights subsequently filed a lawsuit on behalf of six students, who will received $270,000 under the settlement.

The students said they faced a constant torrent of anti-gay slurs due to their actual or perceived sexual orientation. They also said they were choked, shoved, urinated on and even stabbed with a pencil.

The students said an 18-year-old “gag rule” adopted by the district hampered the efforts of teachers to end the harassment and stigmatized gay and lesbian students.The policy required staff to stay neutral on LGBT topics in school. The policywas replaced in February with a new policy that requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, including LGBT students.

Among other things, the settlement requires the District to:

  • Retain an Equity Consultant to provide a systemic review and recommend any needed revisions to district policies related to harassment, as well as district procedures relating to the investigation and response to incidents of harassment, parental notification, and tracking of harassment incidents.
  • Hire a Title IX/Equity Coordinator to implement district policies and procedures, monitor complaints, ensure that district administrators and staff adhere to sex and sexual orientation-based discrimination laws, and identify trends and common areas of concern.
  • Work with the Equity Consultant and Title IX Coordinator/Equity Coordinator to develop improved and effective trainings on harassment for all students and employees who interact with students.
  • Ensure that a counselor or other qualified mental health professional to be available during school hours for students in need.
  • Hire a mental health consultant to review and access current practices in the district relating to assisting students who are subject to harassment.
  • Provide additional specificity to further strengthen the District’s annual anti-bullying survey.
  • Expand the district’s harassment-prevention task force formed the summer of 2011 to advise the district regarding how to best foster a positive educational climate for all students.
  • Work with the Equity Consultant to further identify hot spots in district schools where harassment is or becomes problematic, including outdoor locations and on school buses, and work with the Equity Consultant to develop actions that better align with a safe, welcoming school environment.
  • Require District personnel  to investigate, address, and respond appropriately to every harassment incident, whether reported (verbally or in writing) by the harassed student, a witness, a parent, or any other individual; observed by any District employee; or brought to the District’s attention by any other means;
  • Provide contact information, including the physical address, phone number and email address, for the District’s Title IX Coordinator and Equity Coordinator.
  • Develop procedures for parental notifications that are sensitive to a student’s right of privacy regarding his or her real or perceived orientation or gender identity.
  • Provide a link on the school web site to an incident reporting form and allow direct electronic submission of complaints.

Harassment was defined in the federal lawsuit as ” … the use of derogatory language, intimidation, and threats; unwanted physical contact and/or physical violence, or the use of derogatory language and images in graffiti, pictures or drawings, notes, e-mails, electronic postings and/or phone messages related to a person’s membership in a protected class.”

The lawsuits will be dismissed with the district denying fault or wrongdoing.

Federal investigators reviewed more than 7,000 district documents and included interviews with more than 60 individuals, including current and former students, parents, district staff, teachers and administrators.

U.S. Ranks Low in Access to Justice in Civil Courts

 

It is very difficult for workers to combat the epidemic of workplace bullying and abuse in the United States.

For one thing, unlike many industrialized countries, there is no law or regulatory scheme in the United States prohibiting workplace bullying.

With respect to the laws that do exist and which might offer workers some protection, the American civil justice system is simply out of reach for many Americans.  Most lack access to justice.

The World Justice Institute’s 2011 study of legal systems across the globe shows the United States ranks far behind other countries on providing an accessible legal system to the public.

The group’s report,  Rule of Law Index, analyzed nine different factors of legal systems around the world to gauge how well they function and serve each country’s residents.

In assuring access to the legal system, the U.S. ranked 21st out of the 66 countries included in the study. The U.S.’s lowest scores came from the “Access to Legal Counsel” and “Access and Affordability of Civil Courts.”

When the World Justice Institute’s study compared the U.S. to 23 other countries with similar average incomes, the U.S. ranked 20th, coming in ahead of only Croatia, Poland, and Italy. The “high income” countries (like the U.S.) with the most accessible civil justice systems are Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, Estonia, Austria and Japan, Belgium and the United Kingdom.  (So, Estonia beats us again!)

In the area of affordability of legal counsel, the U.S. ranked 52nd out of the 66 countries studied. “Legal assistance is expensive or unavailable, and the gap between rich and poor individuals in terms of both actual use of and satisfaction with the civil courts system remains significant,” the report’s authors said.

There also is a general perception in the U.S. that ethnic minorities and foreigners receive unequal treatment from the police and the courts.

The bottom line is that American workers have a much more difficult time than workers in other countries accessing the civil justice system to prevent employers from engaging in discrimination or workplace bullying.

The World Justice Project (WJP) is a multinational and multidisciplinary effort to strengthen the rule of law throughout the world. The WJP Rule of Law Index  is a quantitative assessment tool designed to offer a detailed and comprehensive picture of the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law in practice. Data comes from a global poll of the general public and detailed questionnaires administered to local experts.

The Veil over the U.S. Supreme Court

In Cleveland, puppets are being used by a TV station to reenact excerpts from a political corruption trial that is closed to the public … Why not have puppets reenact  U.S. Supreme Court hearings?  Big Bird could play Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Abbie Cadabby could play Elena Kagen. PGB

 

Our society is increasingly divided between the “haves” and the “have nots,” with the vast majority of Americans now strongly disapproving of the way that government is operating.

The President and the U.S. Congress receive much of the blame because they are seen fumbling in prime-time under glare of the television spotlight. But there is another equally or even more powerful branch of government that manages to stay out of the spotlight – the judiciary, led by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you think that corporations have disproportionate influence in American government, you need only look to the Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), holding that corporate funding of “independent” political broadcasts in elections is protected speech under the First Amendment. That ruling alone has spurred a tsunami of money into partisan election politics from corporations seeking to advance their interests.

Most people today “watch” their news on television or the Internet. Refusing to be televised is akin to insisting in 1440 that the bible be penned in ink by monks, longhand, rather than printed on the newfangled Gutenberg printing press. However, federal judges are elected for life and if they don’t want to be televised then who’s going to make them?

Now the Court is getting another opportunity to affect the balance of interests between corporate America and the average American. The Court has agreed to review the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care law, which is being challenged by 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business.

A recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found that 72% of the people surveyed think the Court should allow cameras to televise oral arguments on the health care law, which are scheduled to be held in March.

Courts in the United States generally are unsympathetic to issues surrounding workplace abuse and unfair dismissal,  especially when compared to courts in many other industrialized societies.  Last summer, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to certify a class action involving 1.5 million workers at Walmart who allege sex discrimination in violation of Title VII. The Court’s ruling will have an enormous  impact upon the ability of workers to secure fair treatment in the workplace.

Unfortunately, most non-union workers are clueless about how few  protections they really have until  they are escorted from the building with their possessions in a cardboard box.  Televising the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court is important to the goal of having an informed and educated public. Or is that what the Court is afraid of?

U.S. Secretary of Labor Sleeping on the Job?

With America’s workplace anti-bully movement seemingly stuck in the trenches, perhaps it is time to follow the example of  America’s neighbor to the North.

The Canadian province of Quebec amended its Labour Standards Act in 2002 to ban non-discriminatory workplace harassment and bullying. The law, which went into effect on June 1, 2004, also imposes a duty on employers to prevent and stop bullying.

According to one observer, the law was the result of  a sustained campaign by Quebec unions, as well as by a non-profit advocacy and resource group for non-unionized workers, “Au bas l’echelle” (in English, “Rank and File”).

This effort resulted in the establishment  in 1999 by then Minister of Labor, Diane Lemieux, of an Interdepartmental Committee on Psychological Harassment at Work.  The committee in 2001 recommended the government take legislative steps to prohibit psychological harassment.

It is time for unions and workplace anti-bully advocates to call upon the U.S. Secretary of Labor  to empanel a commission to study the problem of workplace bulling in the United States and recommend new legislation to Congress.

There is overwhelming research that the problem of workplace bullying is epidemic in the United States, affecting at least one in four workers, and that workplace bullying destroys lives and costs American employers billions every year.

Efforts began in the United States almost a decade ago to pass a so-called Healthy Workplace Bill on a state-by-state basis.  Thus far, no state has adopted the bill, which is much weaker than Quebec’s legislation.

Meanwhile, the worsening economy has left more and more workers vulnerable to bullying. Not only are there fewer jobs, but the nature of the workforce is changing. More workers today are categorized as “independent contractors” who receive no benefits and low pay. These include  home-workers, tele-workers, piece-workers.

Even if one state does step up and adopt a workplace anti-bully bill, it will take decades, if ever, before all of the states do.

*** See Debra L. Parkes, “Targeting Workplace Harassment in Quebec: On Exporting a New Legislative Agenda” (2004) 8 Empl. Rts. & Employ. Pol’y J. 423.

Then the “Law is a Ass”

“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot.” –  Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist.

A federal judge in New York earlier this week threw out a pregnancy discrimination case against Bloomberg, L.P.,  holding that it is not the court’s job to “tell businesses what attributes they must value in their employees as they make pay and promotion decisions.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, essentially says pregnant women who take maternity leave are making a choice which may leave them in a  disadvantageous position at the workplace. She says it’s not against the law  because … hey, it was their choice wasn’t it?

The EEOC alleged that 49 of the 78 claimants in the lawsuit were demoted once they announced their pregnancy and/or returned from maternity leave in terms of a diminished title and the number of employees directly reporting to them. Not only were their responsibilities diminished but their responsibilities were handed off to junior male employees.  Also, the EEOC alleged, 77 of 78 of the claimants had their total compensation decreased after becoming pregnant or returning from maternity leave.

Bloomberg is an international financial services and media company based in New York City that provides news, information, and analysis. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg owns the majority of the company, which he founded in 1981

Judge Preska writes:

“ … women who take maternity leave, work fewer hours, and demand more scheduling flexibility likely are at a disadvantage in a demanding culture like Bloomberg’s … The law does not require companies to ignore or stop valuing ultimate dedication, however unhealthy that may be for family life.”

She goes on to write:

“The law does not mandate “work-life balance.” It does not require companies to ignore employees’ work-family tradeoffs — and they are tradeoffs — when deciding about employee pay and promotions. It does not require that companies treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others. All of these things may be desirable, they may make business sense, and they may be “forward thinking.” But they are not required by law.”

Judge Preska granted Bloomberg’s request for a summary judgment to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint, finding that a  reasonable jury could not conclude that Bloomberg engaged in a pattern and practice of discrimination against pregnant women who took maternity leave. Judge Preska said the “anecdotal” evidence provided by the EEOC was insufficient in light of  evidence produced by Bloomberg.  Judge Preska’s decision means the case cannot proceed to a jury.

Judge Preska acknowledged that compensation “growth” for workers who took maternity leave was less than for those who took no leave but she said it is legal to discriminate “between those employees who take off long periods of time in order to raise children and those who either do not have children or are able to raise them without an appreciable career interruption.”

The EEOC also presented examples of alleged bias. One class member, for example, “reported to the CEO in 2003 that the head of the News division made some negative comments about women taking paid maternity leave but then not returning to the company, the CEO said, “Well, is every fucking woman in the company having a baby or going to have a baby?”

According to Judge Preska: “Isolated remarks by a handful of executives — or one specific executive, the head of News, which EEOC focuses on heavily here — do not show that Bloomberg’s standard operating procedure was to discriminate against pregnant women and mothers.”

Finally, here’s what Judge Preska has to say about the fact that only women bear children:

“To be sure, women need to take leave to bear a child. And, perhaps unfortunately, women tend to choose to attend to family obligations over work obligations thereafter more often than men in our society. Work-related consequences follow. Likewise, men tend to choose work obligations over family obligations, and family consequences follow. Whether one thinks those consequences are intrinsically fair, whether one agrees with the roles traditionally assumed by the different genders in raising children in the United States, or whether one agrees with the monetary value society places on working versus childrearing is not at issue here. Neither is whether Bloomberg is the most “family-friendly” company. The fact remains that the law requires only equal treatment in the workplace. Employment consequences for making choices that elevate non-work activities (for whatever reason) over work activities are not illegal.”

Judge Preska was nominated by President George H. W. Bush on March 31, 1992.

It is not clear whether or not Judge Preska has any children.