The White House held a high-visibility conference on bullying prevention March 10, with the President and First Lady calling on parents, teachers, students, and communities to address the problem together. Members of Congress also this week introduced several LGBT-inclusive bills designed to address bullying and harassment of students.
In his opening remarks, President Obama said the one overarching goal of the conference was “to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.” Instead, he said, “Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people.”
The President also noted that bullying is “more likely to affect kids that are seen as different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the disability they may have, or sexual orientation.”
Attending the event were senior administration officials and approximately 150 students, parents, teachers, advocates, and others, including representatives from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Trevor Project.
“No school can be a great school until it is first a safe school,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
And Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius asserted, “Bullying is not an education problem or a health problem — it is a community problem.”
Breakout sessions led by other administration officials discussed school policies and programs, campus and community programs, and cyberbullying. Although there were no sessions or speeches specific to anti-LGBT bullying, the need to address it came up numerous times in breakout sessions and speeches.
Kevin Jennings, the openly gay Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools (OSDFS) at the Department of Education, and the founder of GLSEN, said in a call with reporters that bullying has reached a “tipping point” where it “is no longer tolerable.” What pushed it to that point, he said, was the media attention surrounding a string of five suicides last fall related to anti-LGBT bullying.
The event also served to launch the Web site StopBullying.gov, which consolidates federal anti-bullying resources for students, parents, educators, and others. On the homepage is a prominent rainbow-colored box titled “LGBT Bullying,” which links to LGBT-specific information and resources.
The conference also highlighted several private, national campaigns to address bullying, including ones from the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National PTA.
MTV said it will launch a new coalition — of which the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) will be part — to fight bullying and intolerance online.
And Facebook said it will soon enhance the anti-bullying resources in its online Safety Center. It will also create a “Social Reporting” system so that, when people report content that violates Facebook policies, harassing content can be removed quickly, and parents or teachers can be notified.
Already, the administration has taken several steps to address bullying:
- The Departments of Education, Justice, HHS, Agriculture, Defense, and Interior formed a federal task force on bullying in 2009, and convened the first-ever National Summit on Bullying in August 2010.
- The Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools awarded $38.8 million in grants to 11 states in October as part of a new Safe and Supportive Schools program. The program requires states to survey students, family, and staff about school safety issues, including bullying, and direct grant money where there is the greatest need.
- The Department of Education issued guidance to all school officials in October 2010, reminding them that federal law requires schools to take action against bullying — including gender-based and sexual harassment of LGBT students.
- The Department of Education issued a memo to all chief state school officers in December 2010, providing examples of effective state anti-bullying laws as a reference for developing or revising their own.
- HHS launched a Stop Bullying Now! campaign for students five to eighteen years old, with tool kits to help youth mentor younger children about bullying prevention.
Members of Congress also announced several pieces of anti-bullying legislation this week.
Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) reintroduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act March 8, which would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to implement anti-bullying programs and to report data on incidents of bullying and harassment, including bullying done through electronic communication. The programs must specifically include bullying and harassment based on the actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of students and those with whom they associate, among other attributes.
A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) said she will soon introduce a House version of the bill, as she did last session.
Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) on March 10 reintroduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which establishes similar anti-bullying requirements for colleges and universities receiving federal student aid. The bill is named after a gay Rutgers University student who committed suicide in September 2010 after two other students videotaped him in an intimate encounter with another man and broadcast the video online.
Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) introduce the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA) March 10, which states that elementary and secondary schools must not discriminate against students on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds, or risk losing those funds. “Discrimination,” under SNDA, includes harassment, bullying, intimidation, and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.