White House Bullying Conference Urges Action

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[Shannon Cuttle is an educator, school administrator, safe schools advocate and trainer, community organizer, and policy wonk.]

President Obama and the First Lady unveiled the administration’s new plan to help stop bullying in schools nationwide Thursday at the White House Bullying Conference.

About 150 participants, ranging from teachers, professors, parents, community members, organizations, and students took part in the conference at the White House to discuss the bullying crisis.

In remarks to participants from the East Room of the White House, President Obama and the First Lady spoke to the need for communities and schools to work together and take action to combat bullying and harassment and also of the struggles faced by students and families who have suffered and endured challenges. Said the President:

A third of middle school and high school students have reported being bullied during the school year. Almost 3 million students have said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, even spit on. It’s also 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.

New initiatives from Facebook and MTV were also announced along with the launch of a new resource from the Federal government called Stop Bullying.

As participants broke out into small group sessions to discuss issues related to bullying in schools, one family in attendance spoke of their loss and renewed spirit to fight back against bullying and harassment in schools.

Kirk Smalley and his wife lost their 11-year-old son Ty Field last May when he took his own life after repeatedly being bullying and harassment at school and online by his peers. The sixth grader from Oklahoma had, according to his parents, spoken to his teachers about the bullying but they did not take him seriously. Kirk also says that his wife tried several times to speak with school officials but was met with little assistance. They now speak out against bullying ans harassment and the need for creating safe schools in Oklahoma and around the country.

In an emotional speech to participants, Kirk Smalley said, “These are not statistics or numbers; these are our babies. I cannot begin to tell you with what urgency we need to attack this issue.”

Kirk Smalley and his wife were among four groups of parents with children who had taken their own lives due to bullying and harassment in attendance at the conference. Their presence was a reminder of what bullying and harassment does not only to a youth but also to a family and a community that was both heart-breaking and inspiring.

Mr. Frost, an Elementary School teacher from Arlington, Virgina who attend the conference and was a guest of President Obama, said that in order to combat bullying we need to get back to community schools. He says that he sees challenges daily but the the key is to teach students to respect each other and themselves.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave closing remarks at the end of the day summing up why we need inclusive safe schools and policy:

We need to have a fundamental cultural shift in our schools and communities. We all have an obligation to make our schools safer for all students. No school can be a good school until they are a safe school.

The Department of Education also announced that on the Federal level they would be creating a task force on bullying and a new reporting system that would gather vital statistics on what is happening across the country on this issue. Sec. Duncan also said the Department of Education was committed to making sure that schools and communities had the tools they needed to take action.

But as we move forward talking about bullying and harassment we must make sure to include all youth directly in the discussions on best practices. We must have honest dialog within our local communities and schools about what is going on and especially about what is not working.

It will take all of us to break down the barriers that exist in this debate and create a level playing field—one where all students, all educators, and all families have a voice in creating safe schools and safe spaces. There is not one perfect plan of action to solve this epidemic that effects PreK–College students but a good start is empowering students and care-givers in self-advocacy and support against intolerance.

Yesterday, a memorial service was held for 13-year-old Nicholas Kelo, Jr. of Rittman, OH. The middle school student took his own life after being bullied for joining high school band and was taunted for his perceived sexual orientation. Kelo’s death by suicide is just the latest of countless examples of a problem in our schools that continues to go uninterrupted.

We need to stand up and speakOUT now. This is a crisis in all of our communities and schools nationwide.

Take action and tell your Congress member today to support the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) for inclusive safe schools.

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