I dropped off my 11-year-old daughter at a middle school event recently. She was with a new friend who just moved to our town. As soon as we arrived, another girl walked up to my daughter’s new pal and announced, “Suzy Q in my social studies class does not like you.”
The poor kid was startled to hear that news and protested that she didn’t even know Suzy. It was a terrible way to greet a newcomer who was probably already concerned about fitting in at a new school, so I told the carrier of the bad news that I didn’t understand why she would pass on such information and that it sounded like Suzy had the problem.
At that point, my daughter jumped in and I was able to step back and let kid justice prevail.
But I had one thought: Kids can sure be mean to one another.
The White House agrees. “We’ve got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not,” said President Obama. “We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids. Every single young person deserves the opportunity to learn and grow and achieve their potential, without having to worry about the constant threat of harassment.”
While I agree that bullying is a problem, do we need the White House to put it on its agenda?
Today, Washington escalated its involvement in school bullying, sending out a “Dear Colleague” letters to 15,000 schools and districts and 5,000 colleges and universities explaining their legal obligations to protect students from student-on-student racial and national origin harassment, sexual and gender-based harassment, and disability harassment. The letter provides examples of harassment and illustrates how a school should respond in each case.
The letter puts schools on notice that they have a legal obligation to stop what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called “a silent epidemic” during a telephone press conference just now. In the most egregious cases where higher ed institutions and k-12 schools ignore bullying, they could risk a loss of federal dollars, he warned.
The goal is to both help education institutions build on their bullying prevention programs and to wake up “the schools that have their heads in the sand,” said Duncan.
“If the federal government has to step in, it means that the problem was ignored for far too long,” said Duncan.
A federal censure would only come if adults and students allowed the bullying to continue without any checks. “There is no excuse for that,” said Duncan.
“Among the thousands of young people who kill themselves each year, we know that many of them have been harassed by bullies and no one came to their defense. As a country, we have to confront bullies,” said White House Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, who was also on the media call.
“We think bullying should not exist,” said Duncan. “We need to work, all of us together as fast as we can, to eliminate this issue. Students cannot learn if they feel threatened, harassed or are in fear. Every adult in the building… must intervene and act when they see bullying for whatever reason. Students themselves have a an important responsibility to respect each other no matter what their differences in their backgrounds or their personal beliefs.”