The problem of bullying in our nation’s schools has been in the headlines again, in large part because of a heartbreaking series of recent tragedies: children and youths who took their lives after they were bullied or harassed because their peers believed they were gay. We need to immediately send a clear message to all our children that bullying and harassment for this or any other reason is simply not acceptable. At the same time, we need to make sure that every child knows she or he is a gift from God and feels loved and accepted and valued the way they are.
President Obama was one of the thousands of people who recently chose to record a video statement for the “It Gets Better” Project, started in September by journalist Dan Savage who is collecting and posting messages of hope and encouragement to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths who might be experiencing harassment or bullying or feeling isolated and desperate right now. The President said, “We’ve got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage – that it’s some inevitable part of growing up. It’s not. We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids. And to every young person out there, you need to know that if you’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help…You are not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve being bullied. And there is a whole world waiting for you, filled with possibilities. There are people out there who love you and care about you just the way you are…The other thing you need to know is, things will get better.”
It will get better—and adults need to do everything possible to be sure that for these youths and all other children and teens who are being bullied or harassed today, it gets better right now. Earlier this year, the first—ever Federal National Bullying Summit was held in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, a collaboration between the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Interior, and Justice. In his opening remarks Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that in 2007 nearly one out of three students in middle school and high school said they had been bullied at school during the school year, and one out of nine secondary school students, or 2.8 million students, said they had been pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on during the last school year. Secretary Duncan made clear that the government is committed to enforcing laws against harassment wherever they apply and doing all else possible to keep schools and students safe. The Administration has already planned several next steps for the coming months, including a White House conference on bullying early next year and a series of workshops the Department of Education will hold for educators across the country.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recently reminded school districts that harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability violates federal civil rights laws, so in every instance where a school “knows or reasonably should have known” about this kind of harassment, it has the responsibility under federal law to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring. Schools have this responsibility even if the misconduct is already covered under the school’s discipline policy, and regardless of whether a student has complained, asked the school to take action, or identified the harassment as discriminatory. Adults must simply take charge—as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali put it, it is the school’s responsibility to “stop it, fix it, and prevent it.”
But bullying can take many forms, for many reasons—and bullying that does not violate these specific federal guidelines is still serious, dangerous, and wrong. The Department of Education outlined a list of negative effects of bullying and harassment: lowered academic achievement and aspirations; increased anxiety; loss of self-esteem and confidence; depression and post-traumatic stress; general deterioration in physical health; self-harm and suicidal thinking; feelings of alienation in the school environment, such as fear of other children; and absenteeism from school. In an age where technology is making cyberbullying and other new kinds of harassment an even more widespread threat, it is more important than ever that all adults—starting with every single parent—be sure our children understand that any kind of bullying is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Studies show many youths who bully others have been mistreated themselves but even this can never be an excuse. It must simply add to the urgency we all feel about stopping the cycle right now.
Find out what you can do to end bullying in your community by visiting the Stop Bullying Now campaign website.