School Climate & Safety

Obama: Idea of Bullying as Rite of Passage Must Change

By Nirvi Shah — March 11, 2011 3 min read
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama meet with Sarah and Emily Buder of Mills Valley, Calif., along with students and parents from the Conference on Bullying Prevention on March 10 in the Oval Office.

The White House on Thursday put a spotlight on what it believes has become an epidemic for American schoolchildren: bullying.

President Barack Obama gathered about 150 parents, teachers, bullying victims, researchers, and staff from his education, health and human services, technology, and other departments at the White House to have frank conversations and generate fresh ideas for dealing with the problem—one he said he dealt with as a child.

“With big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune,” he said.

While the remark sparked laughter, the president said the idea that bullying is a rite of passage for American children must change.

He unveiled a website, stopbullying.gov, that offers advice and guidance for kids, parents, teachers, and community members. In addition, his staff said they have new partnerships with MTV and Facebook to counter bullying. The latter was used during the day-long conference as a platform to field questions from all over the country about bullying.

The MTV network will lead a new coalition to fight bullying online, the president said, and launch a series of ads to talk about the damage done when kids are bullied for their race, religion, sexual orientation, or for just being themselves.

And Facebook said it will add two new safety features in the next few weeks: a redesigned safety center with expert resources and information for teenagers and a social reporting system that will allow members to report content that violates Facebook policies so it can be removed and parents and teachers notified.

At one of the small-group sessions, some educators, parents, and administration officials said they hope bullying-prevention measures become a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now called No Child Left Behind, when it is renewed.

“What gets measured gets done,” said Marilee Fitzgerald, acting director of the Department of Defense Education Activity.

The father of Ty Field, an 11-year-old Oklahoman who committed suicide last year after being bullied and then being suspended when he stood up for himself, said the essential lessons schools must teach include four R’s, not three.

“Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic—and respect,” the father, Kirk Smalley, said.

The idea wouldn’t be to punish schools that measure school climate, said Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. But parents need the information, and negative results could actually lead to additional financial support for schools, he said.

Since taking office, bullying has been an issue the president has paid special attention to. Last year, President Obama, the vice president, and others posted videos on YouTube, part of a project called It Gets Better, to inspire struggling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth who may have been the victims of bullying.

Also last year, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal agencies created a task force on bullying. And school districts were sent letters reminding them that not addressing bullying problems could be a violation of students’ civil rights.

In recent days, several national education groups, including both national teachers’ unions, the national PTA, and others have offered their own anti-bullying initiatives. Sens. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and Mark Casey, a Republican from Illinois, also reintroduced a bill that would create the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

The legislation would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, implement effective prevention programs to respond to bullying, and require that states report incidents of bullying and harassment to the Education Department.

“I don’t want this to be a nice conversation for a day and then we go back to our business,” said Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Justice. “That’s not what the president wants. He wants ideas. He wants concrete steps.”

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