Susan Strauss is glad to see Minnesota educators and political leaders paying greater attention to the problem of bullying, but she warns that they might be shortchanging another significant problem: harassment.

In a new book, the Eden Prairie author says that what often passes for bullying might actually be harassment, and she argues that parents shouldn't be so quick to use the bullying label if their children are being intimidated due to their gender, race or sexuality.

Bullying offers little legal recourse for victims, but state and federal laws set criminal penalties for harassment and allow victims to sue school districts that fail to prevent it.

"Schools are going to hear the word 'harassment' differently than they are going to hear the word 'bullying,' '' she said. "If a parent comes in and says, 'Look, my kid is being harassed because of her sex,' that is going to carry more weight than saying, 'My kid is being bullied.'"

Strauss' advice comes amid a heightened focus on bullying in Minnesota. Within days of one another, Attorney General Lori Swanson and Gov. Mark Dayton released plans for strengthening Minnesota's anti-bullying law, which is the shortest and least explicit in the nation. A federal report last week faulted Minnesota for a statute that vaguely requires school districts to adopt policies against bullying and intimidation.

Strauss said school districts have something of an incentive to label incidents as bullying because that might steer parents away from legal action or making harassment complaints with state human rights or federal education officials. Even the toughest states' anti-bullying laws protect schools from liability, she said. Strauss stopped short of saying that districts were intentionally labeling cases as bullying for this reason, but she said all the focus on bullying might confuse parents.

"Schools are bringing in bullying curriculum, bringing in bullying speakers, having bullying policies. All of that is wonderful, but they're doing that at the exclusion of sexual harassment," said Strauss, whose book is titled "Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Guide to Keeping Kids Safe and Holding Schools Accountable."

The legal difference between bullying and harassment hinges on whether the intimidation targets a victim's race, sex, religion or 10 other "protected classes." Harassment rises to a criminal level when it is offensive to the victim and pervasive. Schools are held liable if they "deliberately" ignored a harassment incident and failed to stop it.

The practical difference in school hallways is similarly profound, Strauss said. While bullying often takes place in hidden corners -- or lately, online -- harassment is often in plain view.

State figures don't necessarily support Strauss' argument that harassment is being overlooked. In 2009-10, Minnesota schools took disciplinary actions for 2,237 incidents of harassment, compared with 1,128 incidents of bullying, according to the state Department of Education.

Even so, the potential confusion is a concern for leaders of the Minneapolis schools, said Julie Young-Burns, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the district's office of student support services. Training has taken place "down to the bus drivers" to ensure they know how to distinguish these problems when they occur.

"When a word becomes popular in the parlance, it becomes something we can use without stopping and thinking: 'OK, what is really going on here?'" she said. Both behaviors are "very serious and we want to make sure we respond quickly regardless."

A recent harassment case involved an Anoka-Hennepin high school student who was teased about his sexual orientation by two teachers and then by classmates who piled on. The district paid $25,000 in a 2009 settlement following an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. The district has since been sued by two advocacy groups on behalf of five students who claim to be harassed at school due to their real or perceived sexual orientation.

Harassment has the potential of victimizing witnesses, not just the intended targets. Boys might tease straight boys by calling them gay, causing pain for gay youths who overhear it, Strauss said. "Boys in particular attack other boys. It's sort of a policing, if you will, to make sure they maintain the masculine norm."

Strauss is a registered nurse with a doctorate in organizational leadership. She has testified in harassment lawsuits nationally and had a role in developing Minnesota harassment policies as well as training guides for school districts, colleges and corporations. An earlier book and research studies in the 1980s were among the first to publicly examine the issue of sexual harassment in U.S. schools.

She described the book as a how-to guide for parents to keep schools accountable for their response to harassment and differentiating it from bullying.

"If you're just wanting to get it to stop and the school responds and makes it stop, wonderful. The label probably doesn't matter," she said. "It's when it doesn't stop that the parent needs to know" when it's harassment or when it's bullying.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744