President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama launched an official anti-bullying conference March 10 by asking adults to create safer environments for all children and teens.
Bullying has long been the bane of many LGBT youth, but the spotlight on anti-gay bullying has only been recently cast. The string of tragic suicides last fall, committed by young gay men who had been mercilessly tormented by their peers, sounded an alarm that reached all the way to the White House.
“As parents, we know we need to make a real effort to be engaged in our children’s lives, to listen to them and be there for them when they need us,” Mrs. Obama said in her opening remarks. “We need to get involved in their schools and in their activities so that we know what they’re up to, both in and out of the classroom. And when something is wrong, we need to speak up, and we need to take action.”
The President, in his speech, continued with the theme of parental involvement as the best prevention. “If there’s one goal of this conference, it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not. Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it’s not something we have to accept. As parents and students, as teachers and members of the community, we can take steps – all of us – to help prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe; a climate in which they all can feel like they belong,” Obama said.
He also cited the disturbing statistic that one-third of middle and high school students have reported being bullied during the school year. Kids who are perceived as different suffer at higher rates, due to their race, disability, sexual orientation or other factor. Statistics published in the 2009 National School Climate Survey revealed that eight in 10 LGBT students have been verbally harassed, four in 10 had been physically harassed, and one in five had been physically assaulted at school.
Certain states have also taken legislative action against the act once considered simply part and parcel of adolescence. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “45 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.”
Though cyberbullying is a complicated issue—technology often develops faster than legislation can be passed—the states’ progress is a positive sign for LGBT kids. Increasingly, state legislatures are requiring school administrators to address problems with bullying and enact a system of reforms.
Unfortunately, it is too late for some. Sirdeaner Walker became a national advocate for anti-bullying laws and education when 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 Massachusetts’ comprehensive bullying-prevention rules. Walker and other parents attended the President’s conference.
The President and the First Lady revealed that their interest in preventing bullying is personal—as the parents of Malia and Sasha, it’s an issue that concerns them every day. “We’ve got to make sure our young people know that if they’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help and young adults that can help; that even if they’re having a tough time, they’re going to get through it, and there’s a whole world full of possibility waiting for them. We also have to make sure we’re doing everything we can so that no child is in that position in the first place,” Obama said.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius with spearhead the White House’s efforts against bullying, the specifics of which will be hammered out as the dialogue among parents, children’s advocates and educators continues. The government also launched a website, stopbullying.gov, with resources for kids, parents and teachers; there’s a special section for LGBT youth.
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,” Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who helps train educators on bullying prevention, told the Monitor.