White House Anti-Bullying Tactics: School-wide measures, accessible adults

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The Obama White House put its spotlight on bullying today, hosting a bullying prevention conference, as members of Congress introduced legislation aimed at better protecting gay youth from bullying.

The conference, which President Barack Obama said had a single goal – to “dispel the myth that bullying is part of a normal rite of passage” – came after the first couple posted a joint appeal to stop bullying on Facebook. About 100 people gathered in the East Room to hear opening comments from both the president and first lady that focused on the roles parents, teachers, school districts and the government need to play to combat bullying.

“No family should have to go through what these families had to go through,” the president said, singling out several families in the room whose children recently committed suicide after being targeted by bullies.

“No child should feel that alone,” the president said.

The Obamas’ brief speeches were followed by a panel discussion moderated by White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett that featured four experts in the bullying prevention field.

One panelist, University of Connecticut education professor and researcher George Sugai, said there must be school-wide measures in order to reduce bullying. Success in  minimizing bullying at the individual level is linked to “the larger school climate,” Sugai said his research has shown.

“We need to create school climates where that’s just totally unacceptable,” said Susan Swearer, a professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska.

Prior to the panel discussion, Jarrett touted the increasing role the federal government is playing in this issue, mentioning two guidance letters the Department of Education sent to schools urging them to strictly enforce anti-bullying measures; a new technical assistance center on bullying prevention run by the Education Department; and the launch of a new website, Stopbullying.gov.

The need for an increased government role – not just to highlight the seriousness of the problem but to promote effective policies to combat it – came up in the panel discussion when Justin Patchin, a cyber-bullying expert at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, pointed out that current state laws are numerous but ineffective.

“About 45 states have laws on bullying,” Patchim said, but many merely point out that bullying is a problem school should address rather than providing specific tools for schools to use.  

As the White House proceedings continued, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) introduced legislation that would amend civil rights laws that pertain to discrimination in schools. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would require that schools not discriminate against students based on sexual orientation or identity, and risk losing federal funds if such discrimination is found to exist on school grounds.

The resources available to schools and teachers are valuable, said Catherine Bradshaw, a youth violence prevention researcher at Johns Hopkins University. The trick is, Bradshaw said, for teachers to find time to implement them.

Sugai identified a simple goal that he believes would reduce the problem of unreported bullying dramatically: “Every single kid should have at least one adult they can communicate with inside a school.”

Today’s event accompanies the publication of a comprehensive research-based article by Child Welfare League of America, available here, outlining the causes of bullying and the available methods to prevent it.