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The Politicization of Bullying

Opposing opinions on bullying in schools today make for political wrangling.
Protestors of bullying gather near Hamilton Middle School in Cypress, Texas, after a student killed himself last September. His parents blamed his suicide on two years of being bullied.

Karl Springer, superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public School District, recently found himself answering tough questions in the heavy glare of the media spotlight. The issue? Student bullying. "We don't escalate the situation by being macho," says Springer, also a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and a former Marine Corps captain. "We de-escalate the situation by being understanding, and being firm and tough about setting a standard for our district to be that kind of place where parents can send their kids to school and feel reasonably sure that we're going to maintain a serene environment for their kids."

In Springer's district (40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent black, 22 percent white), three incidents of bullying bubbled over during one week last October: A racially charged bus brawl was followed less than 24 hours later with the admission by a foreign exchange student from China that he had been jumped, beaten and called several racial slurs by a group of students, and a third victim's mother stated her 13-year-old daughter had been attacked at a bus stop.

"It's something we need to pay attention to, and I am pleased that bullying is being taken seriously. I'm not one who believes you can take it too seriously," Springer says. "We've seen some very violent, traumatic situations across this country where kids have killed themselves because of bullying. In this district, we see it as an issue of violence. We're trying to de-escalate that violence so that we don't wind up in a situation that is our worst nightmare."

And in 2002, Jack Barnes was a school administrator in 11,000-student Sullivan County (Tenn.) Schools when a student brought a racial harassment case against the district. Though an out-of-court settlement was reached, the U.S. Justice Department came down hard with a federal court order forcing the district to pay out millions for third-party assessments, surveys, meetings and staff and student school-climate training across its 36 schools.

In Glee, a TV drama, bully Dave Karofsky (Max Adler) pushes Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) because Kurt is gay. Creator Ryan Murphy stated he created the episode after several deaths nationwide related to anti-gay bullying.

Politicians have jumped on the anti-bullying bandwagon, proposing new state and federal laws mandating schools to have new bullying policies, staff and student training programs, and incident reporting mechanisms, according to Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.

"It's mainstream education groups versus conservative Christians," according to Daryl Presgraves, public relations manager for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). "The National Safe Schools Partnership, which has endorsed the enumerated Safe Schools Improvement Act, is made up of a wide range of mainstream organizations."

Gay rights advocates, who comprise an influential political constituency group, have increased pressure on President Obama to support federal legislation. The president responded with a video message on recent suicides involving gay youth, and the federal Education and Justice Departments have redefined bullying as a civil rights issue and have stepped up federal investigations of bullying complaints filed against local school districts nationwide, Trump says.

The Department of Education, which along with Congress has recently eliminated $295 million in Safe and Drug-Free Schools state formula grants to school districts, is now redefining federal school safety policy and funding to de-emphasize violence and physical safety and to focus instead on bullying, civil behavior with one another, and school climate, Trump says.

A spate of teen suicides last year increased the fervor and political pushes for new anti-bullying laws. A number of the higher-profile suicides were reported to involve gay youth. Anti-bullying and gay rights advocates were quick to point to these suicides as being caused by bullying. But Presgraves adds that some conservative Christian groups are actually backing away from their opposition given the recent tragedies. While bullying may be one influencing factor, suicide experts agree that multiple factors come into play with suicides.

Some suicide experts report that 90 percent of individuals who successfully commit suicide have diagnosable mental illnesses at the time of their suicide. Suicide experts also wonder if traditional and social media, and political exploitation of high-profile suicides, have contributed to the suicide contagion effect, in which dramatic coverage of suicides contributes to copycat behavior.

First Summit of its Kind

Last August, Barnes, who was then the superintendent of Sullivan County Schools, was a featured panelist at the first-ever National Bullying Summit in Washington, D.C., a two-day event sponsored by the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, a collaborative effort of the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, the Interior and Justice. "Superintendents need to understand this: If you get a Justice Department decree, money's no option," says Barnes. "They tell you what you're going to do and they don't care how or where you find the money. You just have to find the money. It just takes one [student to file a lawsuit]."

Sirdeaner Walker, a GLSEN board member and mother of an 11-year-old who took his life after he was bullied spoke on Capitol Hill last November, supporting the Safe Schools Improvement Act and Student Non-Discrmination Act.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who opened the conference, stated that in 2007, nearly one out of three students in middle and high school reported they had been bullied at school during the school year. More than 100 participants attempted to hammer out a national strategy to end bullying in schools. Feeling safe in school goes a long way.

For example, in the Sullivan County Schools, when surveys in 2006 showed an increase in students who perceived a positive school climate, academic performance also increased. "That's sort of a 'duh!' statement," says Barnes, who just retired after 37 years in education but will continue to stay involved in helping schools combat bullying and harassment. "But if you're a student going to school feeling safe and there's someone you can go to if you have a problem, then your academic performance will be better," Barnes adds. "Same thing in the work world: If your environment is good and you feel appreciated and helped, then your productivity will increase."

Feeling Bullying Firsthand

Kevin Jennings is assistant deputy secretary of education, of the office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and GLSEN founder.

Kevin Jennings, a lifelong educator, is the assistant deputy secretary of education, heading the office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and the founder, in 1990, of GLSEN. Jennings, who co-chaired the August summit for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, knows about bullying firsthand. His father was a roving Baptist preacher who died when Jennings, the youngest of five children, was eight. His cousins and uncles were in the Ku Klux Klan. In school, Jennings was constantly bullied and harassed for effeminate behavior and, as a result, attempted suicide.

But after he and his mother moved to Hawaii, Jennings was able to graduate from high school and then went on to earn a bachelor's degree magna cum laude in history from Harvard. He started teaching high school history in 1985. He then went on to found GLSEN and has authored six books on the issue of gay rights and education. At the August summit, representatives from various groups, including the Christian Educators Association International, helped strategize the eradication of intolerant school climates.

Jennings' appointment by President Obama has not gone without protest, however. Some groups, such as Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, have called Jennings a "divisive" and "radical" nominee. According to the group's Web site,, the group had called for the withdrawal of Jennings' nomination, saying it's an "affront to Christians, parents' rights and decent moral citizens everywhere who oppose the indoctrination of students in a pro-homosexuality, pro-gender confusion agenda."

"I'm actually the first educator to ever hold this job," Jennings says. "My education and my work history focus on K12 education. at cannot be said of any of the people who have held this job before."

Is Jennings being targeted politically for having led GLSEN and now playing a leading role in education on the federal level? "I'm not seeing that," says Jennings. "What I'm seeing is a lot of folks are really concerned that kids are getting hurt, kids are behind, kids can't learn."

Redefining Bullying

Meanwhile, as a result of heightened public outcry, the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which is working in tandem with Jennings' office, recently issued a 10-page letter to schools redefining bullying as potential harassment under federal harassment and discrimination laws, with an emphasis on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students.

Not everyone sees the federal action as a plus. "This is an unprecedented overreach into local school control of discipline, school climate, school safety," Trump says. "I can't believe that the education associations support such a move—that is, having federal civil rights investigators coming in to investigate them and meddle in how they administer discipline and school climate. But I think they've been biting their tongues and tucking in their tails out of fear of ticking off the Obama administration. However, this has huge implications for school administrators on the front lines" (see sidebar).

Trump sees the likely result of the intervention as more administrators focusing on legal defense and political agendas and less on safety. "School boards, superintendents and principals have no clue of what's in store for them," he says.

The Sullivan County lawsuit of 2002 may foreshadow some of what may be in store. Nonetheless, Barnes says he knows about the 10-page letter to schools. "With the experience our school system had, if the federal government puts out something, I think I would take a look at that letter and try to adhere to it," he says.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and a man who has spent more than 36 years in public education, approves of the OCR's move. AASA recently issued a joint statement with the Parent Teacher Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and America's Promise decrying the recent incidents of bullying and pleading to do everything possible to protect children. "We are concerned with federal infringement over local control, but we also accept that the federal government can play, and should play, a role in education, particularly investigating the areas that deal with the violations of civil rights," Domenech says.

As for Springer, he says he is aware of the letter but confesses, "I don't really think one way or another that's affected the way we do business."

Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick chats with Sirdeaner Walker, far right, GLSEN board member and mother whose son killed himself, as he signs a bill to crack down on bullies and require teachers to report bullying to principals.

In any case, Jennings is very clear: "Our basic job is to give kids an education. When bullying is happening in a school, kids don't feel safe. So to me, it's not political, it's educational. There are not two sides to it. Whenever we start talking politics and not focusing on what the kids need, it's too political for me in any way. "What kids need right now is learning and going to school and not being worried about their safety while they're there," he adds. "Any discussion other than making sure every kid feels safe at school to me is a distraction."

The Olweus Program

Susan Limber, a professor within the Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life at Clemson University, is the executive director of Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, the oldest and one of the most widely used anti-bullying education programs in the world. Limber has noticed an enormous growth in the number of laws on bullying, from one state in 1999 to 45 states today. Typically, the laws require school districts to create policies around bullying. "These laws vary widely in how they define bullying—what they recommend in the policies—and we really don't know yet what, if any, effects these have had," Limber says.

As the Sullivan County Schools' lawsuit demonstrates, such programs are not without costs. On the federal level, three bills pending—Senate bill 3739 and House bills 2262 and 5184—may amend the Safe Schools Act to include or expand the opportunity for, receiving grants to address bullying.

Limber and Dan Olweus, founder of the program, recently conducted a survey of more than half a million children, the largest survey on bullying in the world. "The good news is that most kids feel empathy for bullied kids," Limber says. "It's something that most kids don't like. Unfortunately, too many don't take action to deal with it. So we have the vast majority of kids in a school environment who really want to do something to address bullying. I'm certain that the same goes for the school staff."

Although Limber acknowledges there is reason for concern, she believes optimism is justified. "We know that prevention efforts really can be effective," she says. "Every child has a right to attend a school without being bullied, belittled, harassed, and their parents have a right, as well."

Victor Rivero is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.