School takes aim at bullying

FAIRMONT – Bullying is not illegal, but harassment is. Knowing the difference and how to prevent both are vital to schools.

That was the thrust of a day-long seminar brought to key leaders at Fairmont Area on Wednesday by alumna Dr. Susan Strauss, a 1964 graduate and expert in the field of harassment.

Strauss offered the seminar at no cost, and gave administrators, social workers, nurses and counselors advice on keeping both students and staff safe in district buildings.

A widely published author, Strauss wrote the first book ever published on the issue of sexual harassment to teens in the late 1980s, and wrote her most recent book, “Sexual Harassment and Bullying” just last year.

Strauss’ path to becoming an expert in this field was winding.

After graduating from Fairmont, she went on to become a registered nurse. She then pursued teaching as a health educator, and taught for 15 years. During that time, she became interested in the topic of sexual harassment in teenagers, an issue that had never even been addressed. A small study on the topic led to a book, which led to more and ever-widening research on the topics of harassment and bullying.

Now Strauss regularly serves as an expert witness in harassment lawsuits; conducts field research on sex discrimination and harassment in workplaces in several countries; and appears in national and international media.

The difference between harassment and bullying, Strauss said, is that harassment occurs because something is protected through law. There are 15 protected classes: race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, pregnancy, disability, public assistance, age, sexual orientation, and local human rights commission activity.

Not protected are parental or caregiving status, or physical appearance, such as weight or height.

Harassment is legally defined as an “act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. The purposes may vary, including racial prejudice, personal malice, an attempt to force someone to quit a job or grant sexual favors, apply illegal pressure to collect a bill or merely gain sadistic pleasure from making someone anxious or fearful.”

Harassment is illegal.

Bullying looks similar to harassment, and is often used in place of harassment, but the difference is in the law.

Bullying is defined as a persistent, repeated, malicious, offensive and intimidating behavior that humiliates, degrades, and displays a lack of dignity and respect for the target resulting in them feeling vulnerable and threatened.

Bullying is not illegal in Minnesota. According to Strauss, even in states with anti-bullying laws, the laws are not actionable, meaning there is nothing that can be done about the bullying legally even if it does happen.

Strauss blames the media for much of the confusion on the issue, giving the example of a well-known case in Anoka Hennepin County School District.

Last year, a group took the district to court over discrimination faced by gay, or perceived gay, students. The group won the case – a harassment case – but headlines both in the state and national media referred to the action against the students as bullying.

“The law is very complex,” Strauss said, “even if it seems simple when you look at it. … People don’t know how to differentiate between bullying and harassment.”

Fairmont Superintendent Joe Brown said having Strauss address the leadership of the district will help the district serve staff and students, and help keep them out of court.

“It is a huge issue in society,” Brown said.