In the wake of several high-profile national news stories on tragedies related to bullying, the President and First Lady invited
parents, students, and teachers to join policymakers and advocates at a White House conference on bullying prevention.
Speakers focused on the effects of bullying, as well as on mitigation programs being implemented around the country. Conference
co-sponsors Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spoke about existing
federal efforts and new Obama administration initiatives.
Having a conference hosted by the Obamas raises the issue of bullying to a more visible level. Louis Kraus, M.D., chief of
child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University and a member of the APA Council on Children, Adolescents, and Their Families,
said in an interview with Psychiatric News that the White House event "is extremely important in raising the profile of the cause."
President Obama tells attendees at a White House conference on bullying prevention last month that he was a victim of bullying.
Bullying, he pointed out, is not a "harmless rite of passage."
Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Michelle Obama opened the conference by stressing that prevention of bullying goes beyond just parents and requires that adults
monitor their own behavior. "We all need to play a role—as teachers, coaches, faith leaders, elected officials, and anyone
who's involved in our children's lives. And that doesn't just mean working to change our kids' behavior and recognize and
reward kids who are already doing the right thing. It means thinking about our own behavior as adults as well."
The president noted that to understand the seriousness of the issue, people have to get past the "myth that bullying is just
a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up." Striking a personal note, he said that he "didn't emerge
unscathed," saying that "with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn't immune."
Obama marshaled statistics to illustrate the scope of the problem. "A third of middle-school students have reported being
bullied during the school year. Almost 3 million students have said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, or even spit on."
The physical aspects of bullying are usually thought of in relation to boys, but Kraus said that a significant amount of bullying
occurs among girls, though it frequently takes different forms. Girls often bully and are bullied on an emotional level and
through peer relationships. "For young girls, exclusion and isolation from peer groups can be devastating. This is not to
say that physical bullying between girls does not exist or that its effects should be diminished in any way," Kraus noted.
Besides the horrific stories of children driven to suicide or suffering serious injuries, the repercussions of bullying are
many. The president noted that "bullying has been shown to lead to absences and poor performance in the classroom. And that
alone should give us pause since no child should be afraid to go to school in this country."
Kraus pointed out that bullied children have a higher frequency of mental health issues. Bullies also have more mental health
issues, but "the nature of the cycle is not understood yet. Were they previously bullied, did they have mental health issues
before becoming a bully?" Many of the mental health issues related to bullying can be avoided, he noted, once there is a more
complete understanding of bullying than is now the case.
A disturbing new twist on bullying is the advent of cyberbullying. "Today, bullying doesn't even end at the school bell—it
can follow our children from the hallways to their cell phones to their computer screens," said the president.
Kraus agreed that cyberbullying is arising as a major issue. "It is pervasive, and the impact can be equally as severe as
face-to-face bullying, as has been seen in recent high-profile cases." Tina Meier, whose 13-year-old daughter committed suicide
after becoming the victim of an Internet hoax, told the conference audience that it was unrealistic to believe that the modern
communications tools used in cyberbullying can just be turned off. "Technology is out there. We cannot shut it off." She stressed
how important it is for parents to "understand what's going on in their children's online world."
The conference also included breakout sessions to cover policies and programs to prevent bullying, including those that are
run by schools, community organizations, and college groups.
Initiatives by the Obama administration to combat bullying include launching the Web site,
StopBullying.com, which provides information from various government agencies on methods and programs to deal with and stop bullying. In addition,
the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to schools, colleges, and universities
clarifying federal protections for students from bullying, and Duncan sent a letter to every state school chief outlining
each state's antibullying laws.
On the legislative front, a new bipartisan bill in the Senate looks to establish guidelines and requirements for reducing
bullying in schools. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced the Safe Schools Improvement Act. If that bill
is passed, schools receiving designated federal funds would be "required to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting
bullying and harassment, including conduct based on a student's actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability,
sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion." States would also be required "to report data on incidences of bullying
and harassment to the Department of Education." When reached for comment, Kirk said "our children need to feel protected and
safe so they can learn. My hope is that the Casey/Kirk bill will encourage schools and districts to develop effective prevention
and responsible protocols."