White House, lawmakers tackle bullying in schools
A March 10 White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, including remarks by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, and reintroduction of anti-bullying and nondiscrimination legislation in Congress focused attention once again on the issue.
"Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people," President Obama said. "And it’s not something we have to accept. As parents and students, teachers and communities, we can take steps that will help prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe."
The White House said as many as one-third of school-aged children are bullied each year, often leading to problems in school, alcohol and drug abuse and health and mental health issues. Many children are bullied over sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and LGBT youths have much higher school dropout and suicide rates than other teens.
"As parents, this issue really hits home for us," Michelle Obama said. "It breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, on the playground or even online."
After the Obamas opened the conference, participants attended breakout sessions that included discussions and Q&A with top administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes.
The White House also used the conference to unveil a new website, stopbullying.gov, that includes tips, resources and help for teens, young adults, parents and educators.
That same day U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) reintroduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, and U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require higher education institutions receiving federal student aid to develop bullying policies that draw specific attention to harassment fueled by bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics.
"The alarming increase in teen suicides has shown us just how far we are from making our children’s schools safe spaces," Polis said. "We must take action to protect the safety of our students and enshrine the values of equality and opportunity in our classrooms. My legislation puts LGBT students on an equal footing with their peers, so they can attend school and get a quality education free from fear."
Just two days earlier, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and 17 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act, legislation that would require schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies.
"Bullying on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion has been growing at a rapid pace in the age of texting and online social networks," Kirk said. "Our children need to feel protected and safe so they can learn and I hope the Casey/Kirk bill will encourage schools and districts to develop effective prevention and response protocols."
Kirk said polls show that 85 percent of Americans support federal legislation to enforce rules against bullying in schools. The bill, as with those introduced by Polis, Franken, Holt and Lautenberg, is likely to face an uphill battle in Congress, particularly in the Republican-controlled House. Kirk, who is the lead Senate sponsor, is the only Republican sponsor.
The Kirk/Casey bill is backed by a host of health, education and advocacy organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
"Anti-LGBT harassment hurts the children of both Democrats and Republicans, as do all of the forms of bullying and harassment addressed by this important bill," GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard said. "Senators Casey and Kirk show we all share a common vision of schools that keep students safe and focused on learning."