President Obama: Bullying is not a "harmless rite of passage"

President Barack Obama and the First Lady met with students, teachers, and policy makers during the White House Conference for Bullying Prevention on March 10. Photo: Getty ImagesPresident Barack Obama and the First Lady met with students, teachers, and policy makers during the White House …Even President Barack Obama was bullied as a kid.

"With big ears and the name that I have, I wasn't immune," he said at the White House yesterday. "I didn't emerge unscathed."

About 150 students, parents, policy-makers, teachers, and non-profit leaders gathered in Washington, D.C. for the White House Conference for Bullying Prevention, to discuss anti-bullying measures in schools and communities across the country.

"Bullying isn't a problem that makes headlines every day. But every day it touches the lives of young people all across this country," the president said. "But because it's something that happens a lot, and it's something that's always been around, sometimes we've turned a blind eye to the problem. We've said, 'Kids will be kids.' And so sometimes we overlook the real damage that bullying can do, especially when young people face harassment day after day, week after week."

A third of middle-school and high-school students say they have been bullied during the school year, and millions of students say they've been pushed, tripped, shoved, or spat upon because of their gender, the clothes they wear, the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or a physical or mental disability.

"This is the first time we've asked the students themselves what's going on in their schools," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during a press conference. "The majority of bullying happens outside of the view of teachers. The majority of the victims don't tell that it's happened."

"If there's one goal of this conference, it's to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up," Obama said. "It's not. Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it's not something we have to accept."

Bullying can lead to poor academic performance, of course, but can cause widespread damage outside of school. Kids as young as 11 have committed suicide because of bullying, focusing a spotlight on the problem and leading school administrators and community leaders to search for ways to address the issue on and off campus. Technology makes it easier than ever before for bullying behavior to affect kids outside of the classroom, and adults have started to recognize that bullying can involve more than physical contact or intimidation-and that the bullies aren't necessarily socially inept. Psychological bullying, more often used by girls, can be just as damaging to victims, if not more so.

"As parents, this issue really hits home for us," First Lady Michelle Obama told guests. "So 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. We need to get involved in their schools and in their activities so that we know what they're up to, both in and out of the classroom. And when something is wrong, we need to speak up, and we need to take action."

During the conference, the president announced the launch of a new website: The site offers resources and information for parents and teachers, and is part of what Duncan called "a coordinated effort to protect student from bullying and harassment." In 2010, he said, $38 million was poured into programs to combat school violence in 11 states; the White House has requested $365 million for the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students program for fiscal year 2012.

Anti-bullying legislation, called the Safe Schools Improvement Act, was introduced this week by Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Republican Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois, CNN reported; the bill would help schools implement prevention programs and would require that states report bullying and harassment data to the Department of Education.

In addition to existing programs like Open Circle, a social and emotional learning program that can help reduce bullying by improving school climate and encoring positive social interaction, there are a number of new partnerships and programs forming to combat bullying, the White House announced, including:

  • Social network Formspring has partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab to develop ways to detect and prevent cyberbullying.
  • MTV has announced that it will launch a new anti-digital discrimination coalition as part of it's award-winning "A Thin Line" campaign; the partnership will be with the National Council of La Raza, the Anti-Defamation League, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and GLADD, and six new PSAs are planned.
  • Facebook is launching two new safety features and plans to create a new "social reporting" system for users to report content violations.
  • SurveyMoney is offering a 10-question survey that students can use to gather information about bullying.
  • The National Education Association, the National PTA, the National Association of Student Councils, the National School Boards Association, and the American Federation of Teachers are launching national anti-bullying campaigns to raise awareness and offer resources and support.

"Bullying is not a new phenomenon," said Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. "It's been pervasive for some time. But there comes a point where something we've tolerated for a long time is no longer tolerable. That's the tipping point we've reached."

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