Obama takes on bullies at White House anti-bullying summit

President Obama showcased federal, state, local initiatives to address bullying, at a White House webcast on bullying prevention.

Charles Dharapak / AP
President Obama speaks at a conference on bullying prevention in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 10.

Partly it’s because he grew up being teased about his big ears, and partly it’s because he has two young daughters: For President Obama, the nation’s bullying problem is one he takes personally.

He and First Lady Michelle Obama opened a conference on bullying prevention Thursday morning by calling on all adults to consider the role they can play in creating a safer climate for children.

The issue is even more personal for some conference attendees – parents and siblings of youths who have killed themselves in recent years in the wake of repeated bullying.

Sirdeaner Walker, for instance, became a national advocate for anti-bullying laws and education after her 11-year-old son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, committed suicide in 2009 after prolonged anti-gay bullying at school. Attention to his case, as well as the suicide last year of teenager Phoebe Prince, helped build momentum for a new comprehensive bullying prevention law in Massachusetts.

“No family should have to go through what these families have gone through,” President Obama said. With a third of all middle-schoolers and high-schoolers reporting that they have been bullied in a given school year, he said, “we’ve got to make sure our young people know that if they’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help.... And this is a responsibility we all share – a responsibility we have to teach all children the Golden Rule: We should treat others the way we want to be treated.”

By taking on bullying in such a high-profile way, the conference “will be a huge step towards changing our current ‘vulture culture’ into one of respect and equality,” says Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who helps train educators on bullying prevention. Because the conference included a live chat on Facebook, she says, it’s “really hitting directly at the population most likely to bully and be bullied.”

Many young people want to stand up against bullying, but simply don’t know how, Ms. Lipkins adds.

On the new website StopBullying.gov, both children and adults can find a wide range of free resources to better understand bullying and how to respond.

Increasingly, state legislators are requiring educators to address bullying. Forty-five states have anti-bullying laws, but many need to be more comprehensive, according to the watchdog group Bully Police USA. The group gives New Jersey’s recently revised law and the 2010 Massachusetts law an A++ rating for meeting key criteria such as mandating anti-bullying programs, protecting people against reprisal for reporting bullying, and including a clause on cyberbullying.

Only 30 of the state laws specifically address cyberbullying, and many of those don’t outline what schools should do, said Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, during the conference. About 1 in 5 teens has experienced cyberbullying ranging from minor things to death threats, but less than 15 percent tell adults, he says, partly because they don’t want to lose access to their cell phones or social media sites.

On the federal level, Sens. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois and Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania this week reintroduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require comprehensive anti-bullying policies in schools, specifically addressing commonly targeted populations such as members of a minority race, religion, or sexual orientation.

A 2005 survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that students were less likely to face serious harassment at schools with such comprehensive policies than at schools lacking those policies.

Another bill, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, is being introduced Thursday in the Senate and House by Sen. Al Franken (D) of Minnesota and Rep. Jared Polis (D) of Colorado. It would protect students from discrimination, including harassment “based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” in public elementary and secondary schools.

One of the advocates for that bill is Wendy Walsh, whose son, Seth Walsh, killed himself last year at age 13 after being bullied for his perceived sexual orientation.

But laws on the books can’t do much if schoolteachers and other staff aren’t given guidance about how to respond when bullying is reported.

Knowing that schools are burdened with tight budgets and little time, the US Department of Education has been trying to provide some help on this front.

Through its Office for Civil Rights it has sent out letters of guidance to school districts and colleges about educators’ responsibility to protect students from harassment. It has also sent out a memo to chief state school officers outlining key components of effective anti-bullying laws and policies. And the Department will be creating a technical assistance center for schools, dedicated specifically to bullying prevention, officials announced today.

Eleven states have also received grants from the Education Department to measure school safety and put prevention efforts into place in the schools most in need. “This is the first time we’ve asked students directly what’s going on in their schools... and the states [receiving the grants] have to make the results public so parents can know how safe the school is,” says Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of the department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

The kids willing to stand up against bullying need to be treated as heroes, several experts noted.

“We need to rewrite the culture... so it’s not ‘ratting.’ We need to reward reporting,” Lipkins says.

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