Hostile Environment in Education
The Minnesota Human Rights Act requires school officials to take action to avoid the creation of a hostile educational environment. A hostile educational environment (hostile environment) is created when a child is subjected to conduct that interferes with or denies the child from participating in or enjoying the benefits, services or opportunities in the school’s programs and the conduct is intimidating or abusive on the basis of actual or perceived protected class status. The Act identifies the following protected classes: race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, sexual orientation or disability.
A hostile environment can be created in many different ways, including through verbal acts, name-calling, written statements or conduct that is physically threatening, harmful or humiliating.
Individuals who physically engage in violence, call students derogatory slurs or epitaphs, or create drawings that suggest violence by depicting lynching may create a hostile environment. For example, unabated name calling with suggestions that a student leave the United States and go back home may create a hostile environment.
A hostile environment can be created by many different individuals. Students, teachers and those employed by the school can create a hostile environment. Additionally, actions of “guests” of the school such as volunteers and students from other schools can also create a hostile environment.
In assessing whether the conduct created a hostile environment, school officials should assess whether the conduct was subjectively and objectively offensive.
If the school determines that a hostile environment was created, school officials should address the needs of the student who was the target of the hostile conduct and take action to stop the conduct from occurring again, which may include taking adverse action against the individuals who engaged in the harassing conduct.
After school officials have taken remedial measures to address the hostile environment, school officials should speak with the student that was the target of the hostile conduct to ensure that the student feels welcome at school.
As a proactive measure, a school may wish to remind all of their students, teachers and parents of their school harassment policy and how to report incidents of harassment.
Parents who don’t feel comfortable reporting harassment under the school’s harassment policy should be informed of their right to file a complaint with administrative agencies such as the Minnesota Department of Human Rights or the Office of Civil Rights with the Department of Education.