White House Launches Anti-Bullying Initiative

Some sadly inactive congressional bills seek to move the conversation from personal responsibility to school policy.

By Shani O. Hilton Mar 15, 2011

Inspired by last fall’s series of LGBT youth suicides caused by bullying, last week the White House held a Conference on Bullying Prevention. The president chose to focus more on individual actions and solutions for bullying, rather than legislative ones, despite a spate of anti-bullying bills hitting both state and federal legislatures.

Late last year, more than half a dozen LGBT youths around the country committed suicide in the span of a few weeks, leading to renewed concerns about the dire effects of bullying in schools.

"We can take steps to prevent bullying," President Barack Obama said at the opening of the conference, which took place on Thursday and marked the debut of StopBullying.gov, a site that "provides information from various government agencies on how kids, teens, young adults, parents, educators and others in the community can prevent or stop bullying." The president and first lady Michelle Obama spoke to a room of teachers, school administrators, and parents, and framed their remarks from the perspective of being parents themselves.

Riffing on personal responsibility, Michelle Obama explained that, "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." She went on to praise a mother who took steps to fight the bullying her daughter was experiencing.

But personal responsibility isn’t good enough for the legislators around the country who are introducing acts that would force schools to step up protection of students getting bullied. Thus far, their bills remain sadly deep in the legislative qu.

The AP reports that New Jersey Democrats Frank Lautenberg and Rush Holt just re-filed federal anti-bullying legislation that would, among other measures, require colleges to adopt anti-bullying policies. The bill is named after Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who committed suicide last year after being secretly filmed by his roommate while he was kissing another man.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey and Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, has provisions that are designed to explicitly protect LGBT students. Anti-bullying programs funded by the bill 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," according to the Windy City Times.

In Connecticut, there’s S.B. 1138, a bill "requiring all school employees–bus drivers and cafeteria workers among them–to get annual training on bullying prevention and response; having each school district appoint a safe school environment coordinator; and amending the definition of ‘bullying’ to include cyberbullying."

Anti-bullying legislation largely direct resources at schools and their efforts to protect students, rather than creating new crimes for bullies. Some argue that prosecuting bullies would not necessarily help anyone involved. Last fall, when several LGBT teens committed suicide, Jessica Bennett wrote at Newsweek:

There is longstanding research to show that law is not a deterrent to kids who respond emotionally to their surroundings; ultimately, labeling a group of raucous teens as "criminals" will only make it harder for them to engage with society when they return.

While it’s unclear which of these bills will be codified into law–as previous bills have died several times over the last year–27 senators and 99 members of the House have signed on to support the Al Franken-Jared Polis sponsored Student Non-Discrimination Act. The bill, which was introduced on Friday, also focuses on protecting LGBT youth and would ban discrimination at the federal level in public schools based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

And according to Jonathan Capehart at The Washington Post, the White House focus on bullying is part of Obama’s "Winning The Future" strategy for improving education in the United States. He quotes Valerie Jarrett, who explains, "What the children will tell you is that many of them are so paralyzed by fear that that’s all they think about in school. We want to free them from that, because every child should be able to go to school and feel that they are in a safe and secure environment."