White House Wants To Stop School Bullying

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are lending their support to anti-bullying efforts. Following a spate of youth suicides linked to incidents in 2010, the White House last week hosted a bullying prevention conference and launched the website StopBullying.gov to help kids, parents and teachers. Host Michel Martin speaks with Melody Barnes, a Domestic Policy advisor for the Obama Administration, about government efforts to stop bullying in schools.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today we want to talk, as we have previously on this program, about bullying. Later in our weekly moms conversation, we'll meet a young girl who is tired of being picked on because of her weight. So she decided to publish a book about it. Did we mention she's six years old? LaNiyah Bailey will be with us a little later, along with her mom and dad, because, yes, she did have help.

But, first, I think it's fair to say that bullying has probably always been with us. But a spate of recent news stories has brought the issue to the forefront in a way that we probably have not seen before. Just last year, for example, the country was shocked by a spate of suicides of young people, including 11-year-old Ty Fields from Oklahoma, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts and 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a student in the New York area. All of whom took their own lives after having been bullied.

These are just a few of the incidents that motivated President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to hold a bullying prevention conference at the White House last week and to create a website called stopbullying.gov with resources for students, parents and teachers on the issue. They even launched the effort on Facebook with a public service announcement. Here it is.

(Soundbite of PSA)

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: It's tough enough being a kid today. And our children deserve the chance to learn and grow without constantly being picked on, made fun of, or worse.

President BARACK OBAMA: For a long time bullying was treated as an unavoidable part of growing up. But more and more, we're seeing how harmful it can be for our kids, especially when it follows them from their school, to their phone, to their computer screen.

MARTIN: We wanted to know more about this White House effort, so we've called upon Melody Barnes. She is the Domestic Policy Adviser for the White House, and she's with us on the phone now, from her office. Melody Barnes, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Ms. MELODY BARNES (Domestic Policy Adviser, White House): Thank you for asking me to join you and for talking about such an important topic.

MARTIN: You know, I wanted to ask about that, because the president, the White House has asked to weigh in on all manner of issues. You know, the NFL labor dispute on matter of foreign policy crisis. And the president has not been shy about saying, you know what? I have other things to do. So, why did this issue rise to the level that the White House felt that the president, the first lady ought to be personally involved, and for that matter, in aid of your stature?

Ms. BARNES: Well, first of all, we think it's important to put a bright light on this problem. You know, as you were saying earlier, sometimes people believe that this is just a right of passage, like getting your drivers license or, you know, turning 18 so now you can vote. And we have to dispel that notion because we know that the damage being done to our children is significant. We've heard about a third of middle and high school students have reported that they've been bullied during the school year. That's a huge number.

And then those who are actually doing the bullying have significant effects on their lives. Most by the time they're 24 have engaged in some other form of violence. And then the children who are witnessing bullying, there's a detrimental effect to them as well. So this is a significant problem and we haven't even talked about the most grave examples of those commit suicide, take their own lives.

MARTIN: Is there a particular circumstance or data point that particularly engaged the president and the first lady?

Ms. BARNES: I think, you know, obviously the suicides. And that's why the president lent his voice to the It Gets Better campaign, as along with Secretary Clinton and others. And hearing about those stories, knowing that if those kids had felt that they could go to some adult, go somewhere, talk to someone to stop this, that perhaps they would still be with us today. That obviously hits all of us, you know, right in the heart, right in the gut.

But then you also look at the effects on students who are A students all of a sudden who hate school, who are getting Ds, so they're jeopardizing their future. And the fact that we can do something about this and, in fact, that communities are turning this around, that we have young people, like, the young woman, the six-year-old, rather, that you're going to be talking to, who are writing about this, telling their stories, starting organizations, parents and teachers and students. We want to lift that up and tell those stories as well.

MARTIN: What do you think can be done about it? Particularly from the standpoint of that which is within your purview policy. You know, are there policy initiatives that you have found are particularly helpful?

Ms. BARNES: Yes. There are some that we've been looking at, and, in fact, the last administration - previous administrations have started to tackle this problem. We've been building on it in two different ways. One, with some additional financial resources to help school districts and help school systems, but also by advocating and talking about some of the policies that we're including in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that will help people try and normalize the school climate and monitor the school climate.

So we're putting that information out there. Secretary Duncan has also issued guidance, a dear colleague letter to school systems, and letting people know what the obligation is of school officials when this problem occurs.

Too often, we hear about people turning a blind eye or turning away when there really is a responsibility to create a safe environment for kids to learn, and also technical assistance that we're offering to governors and chief state school officers as they're looking at anti-bullying policies in their own jurisdictions.

MARTIN: I don't think anybody thinks that bullying is okay, but there are those who do say two things. One is that this administration is involved - has its fingers in a lot of different pies, and maybe this isn't something that rises to the level of federal concerns, sort of, number one. This is something better left to the states and local governments, counselors, the community.

And there's also another point of view that there is a concern on some quarters that while the attention on this issue is long overdue, there are those who are concerned about an overreaction where the cure will be as bad as the disease. It will start criminalizing behavior, for example, that is best left to counselors and things of that sort. Can you address that?

Ms. BARNES: Sure. First of all, we have talked about, and the Department of Education helps shine a light on the difference between bullying and, you know, what happens normally on a schoolyard. And it's that kind of conduct, whether it's verbal or physical, that creates a harmful or threatening - physically threatening environment for students.

And that's what we have to prevent. That's what we have to stop. And obviously, if you end up in situations where children are feeling so threatened, they're feeling so desperate they're taking their own lives, we have to put a bright light on this.

And I think people often confuse the fact that we are calling attention to something with the idea that we are dive-bombing in and saying we're the federal government. We're here to singularly fix this. And that's not what we're saying.

We're saying there are some things that we can and should be doing, but at the same time, we're saying there are things that the local PTA and the national PTAs are doing. There are things that teachers' unions and school boards are doing. There are things - you mentioned Facebook and MTV, that they're doing in the private sector. We can partner with them. And it's really an all-hands-on-deck moment, so that we can all work together to fix this.

We're just shining a light on it, saying this is important. Here's what we can do, while we're also asking others to hear the call and take action in their communities.

MARTIN: Melody Barnes is the director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, and she was kind enough to join us from her office at the White House.

Melody Barnes, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. BARNES: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure, as always.

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