Anti-bullying effort pushed by President Obama
President Barack Obama on Thursday hosted a first-of-its-kind conference on teen bullying, thrusting an issue usually confined to the schoolhouse into a national limelight.
Obama joked that as “someone with big ears and the name that I have,” he wasn’t immune to bullying as a child.
He added that the purpose of the conference was to dispel the myth that bullying is harmless or an inevitable part of growing up.
“Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people,” Obama said. “And it’s not something we have to accept.”
The conference, which Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Jared Polis used to push their agendas on bullying, grew out of a spate of deaths last year involving young people who killed themselves because they were — or were perceived to be — gay.
“We were all saddened, profoundly saddened, by those reports,” said Melody Barnes, White House domestic policy adviser.
Polis, D-Colo., who in 2008 was the first openly gay man elected to Congress, has introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
“Barring swift action, this discrimination will continue to bring shocking headlines and devastate families from across this country,” Polis said.
Polis and Franken’s bill would give a legal vehicle to people like Wendy Walsh of Tehachapi, Calif., whose 13-year-old son, who came out when he was in sixth grade, hanged himself from a tree in their backyard last year after he was relentlessly teased.
Walsh said Thursday that she pleaded with her California school officials to intervene but that no one did enough. One teacher actually joined in on the bullying, she said.
“I’m in Washington to honor my son, Seth,” she said.
“As parents, it breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, or on the playground, or even online,” first lady Michelle Obama said. “It breaks our hearts to think about any parent losing a child to bullying, or just wondering whether their kids will be safe when they leave for school in the morning.”
White House officials also talked about how to encourage schools and parents to monitor so-called cyberbullying — when kids get teased online because of posted comments or pictures.
Representatives from Facebook and Disney participated in that discussion.
Colorado’s state lawmakers are taking up the issue as well, and pending legislation at the state Capitol would increase statewide efforts to curb bullying in schools and create a committee to study the problem and a fund to fight it.
In Washington, Bennet, D-Colo., has legislation that he hopes to fold into the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind that would give schools the freedom to use federal dollars to put into place a program that rewards positive behavior.
“It’s not about bullying particularly, but it’s about making sure we catch kids early” who misbehave and have problems, he said.
Asked whether the focus on testing and accountability has moved schools and teachers away from cracking down on bullying, Bennet said it’s “catch as catch can.”
“Those decisions are going to be made, as they should be made, at the local level, and we can give encouragement from here,” he said. “No child should be scared of going to school.”
-By Allison Sherry; Photo: Reuters