Kerry Kennedy: Bullying Is A Human Rights Issue

For many, the struggle for freedom from abuse begins on the playground. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights has a new effort to address bullying in schools. Kerry Kennedy is the president of the organization and the daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy. She speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., the late civil rights and human rights leader. We want to turn now to another social justice advocate who has another perspective on human rights today. She says that bullying is a human rights issue. Her name is Kerry Kennedy. She is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. She's also the daughter of the organization's namesake, the late Robert F. Kennedy.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is known for raising awareness of human rights abuses around the world and it typically deals with issues like genocide and environmental justice, but the organization recently decided to include school bullying as one of its areas of advocacy, and Kerry Kennedy is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KERRY KENNEDY: It's great to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, you know, bullying is certainly something that we've come to understand is pervasive. The U.S. Department of Education says - now, this is data from 2007 - that about a third of students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported being bullied at school, which is one reason that, last year, the U.S. Department of Education held the first federally-backed summit to address bullying in schools.

But I'm wondering why you consider this a human rights issue, such that you would take it on, especially given your reputation for issues like genocide, as we said.

KENNEDY: We have the Robert F. Kennedy Center speak to the power of curriculum, which is taught to about a million high school and middle school students worldwide. It's a 12 week course on human rights and there are chapters on different human rights defenders and the work that they do.

We wanted kids to really relate to this. We are asking them constantly to stand up against their peers when their peers are teasing or bullying others. So I thought that this was a very, very important lesson, not only because it's about bullying but because our aim is really to get students to self-identify as human rights defenders and if they can do it as teenagers - middle school and high school level - then I think our country will be better served and our world will be better served by them as they take on more and more positions of power.

MARTIN: You know, some might argue that this is a developmental issue. I mean, if there's something that's that pervasive, then it's something that you grow out of, as opposed to the other issues in human rights where you can't grow out of it; like you can't grow out of being a member of a minority group that's targeted for oppression. You can't grow out of - say, if you're a person who is gay and you're in a society that is hostile to you, that's not something you grow out of.

And so I think there are people who would argue that bullying is different because that's part of childhood. It's something that has to be taught. People have to be taught out of it, that it's not the same. Could you address that?

KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, I think that that's a myth. First of all, a lot of bully victims will never have a chance to grow out of being a victim because they will never grow up. They are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.

And, you know, 85 percent of bullying cases - there's no intervention or effort made by a teacher or administration. So this is something that all of us have a responsibility for. But I think in terms also growing out of it, look at the statistic that says a bully is six times more likely to be incarcerated by the age of 24 and five times more likely to have a serious criminal record when they grow up. So these are people who often grow up to prey on our society.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Kerry Kennedy. She's president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. This is an organization that's known for its advocacy and raising awareness around issues like genocide. The organization has now adopted a new initiative to combat bullying in schools, and Kerry Kennedy is saying that we should think about bullying as another human rights issue.

So talk to me, if you would, about this Speak Truth to Power curriculum. What kinds of lessons do you teach? Who do you teach it to? How does it work?

KENNEDY: Well, the Speak Truth to Power curriculum is available online at RFKCenter.org. It's free, it's downloadable and it's consistent with social studies and the English curricula for 46 states, so almost anybody across the country can use it.

Our aim there is to not only teach kids about the particular issue - in this case bullying - but also give them concrete tools that they can use so that they can become human rights defenders at the end of this 12 week curriculum.

So, for instance, we teach kids to recognize what bullying is. In the last month, have you heard certain words, offensive words, in your school? Every time we ask that, half the room will raise their hands. And does that make you feel safe? Do you think every kid who comes to this school feels safe each day? And, you know, we find, across the board, nobody raises their hands because everybody knows that kids in their school are not feeling safe.

So the question is, what are we, as adults, going to do about that? And this curriculum really teaches kids that they can rely on the administration. They can rely on their parents, but they can also take action themselves to stop bullying and to protect themselves and to create an environment that's safe in their schools.

MARTIN: How do you recommend that, particularly the adults in a situation, separate bullying from the give and take that students, particularly older students, should be allowed to have? Like, for example, if you have students who have different perspectives on sexual orientation, or maybe students from a particular religious background who believe that same sex relationships are wrong and shouldn't be sanctioned and are in the same community with people who feel differently? I mean, how do you keep from making it be...

KENNEDY: Absolutely...

MARTIN: ...politically correct? You know, or just policing speech to the point where people really can't talk about the things that they want to talk about?

KENNEDY: Yeah. Absolutely fine to disagree on the issues. What you're not allowed to do is start calling people names or doing so in a way that's meant to cause harm. There are things that adults need to do and can do. One is to identify, help kids identify what bullying is.

Two, you can know who to call and when to call. So teachers should be told. Administrators should be told. If the administration is not taking steps, you can go to the district level, to the state level.

MARTIN: How do you think bullies should be dealt with? Does the RFK Center for Human Rights have a perspective on policies of how bullies should be dealt with? And I'm particularly interested in the fact that a number of communities, after having experienced, you know, tragedies around bullying have sometimes turned to, you know, stiffening penalties, which sometimes includes incarceration if kids are of a certain age.

But the U.S. already has an extremely high rate of incarceration when compared to other countries and it does seem that certain groups, particularly minority groups, seem to be the ones on whom this falls most heavily. So what is your perspective on how bullies should be dealt with?

KENNEDY: Well, and you know, if people are breaking laws, they have to be held responsible, so let's start there. That said, criminalization, punishment really rarely works with bullying. In fact, most people who are bullies are people who have been abused in one way or the other in some other part of their life, and somebody who is bullied at school might come home and bully their younger siblings or their cousins or other people in their neighborhood, or in cyberspace.

So it's a little bit more complex than identifying one person as the perpetrator and punishing that person.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, when you think about, you know, where we are now and if you and I were to get together, say, five years from now and talk about this, what kind of conversation do you think, you know, we'll have?

KENNEDY: I think that it's very positive that the federal government, the Obama administration, has taken a strong stance on this, and there is increasing understanding, recognition of it and school districts are dealing with it, grappling with it in a way that they really haven't in the past, and that's, I think, particularly appropriate as we're celebrating Martin Luther King Day today to think about who are the groups of people who are being discriminated against and ostracized because of something about them over which they have no control.

And what are we doing to address that as a community? And that's what bullying education is about. And I think five years from now this is going to be a much more widely understood phenomenon and I think we're going to have better tools in our toolkit to address it.

MARTIN: Kerry Kennedy is the president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. She was kind enough to join us on this Martin Luther King Day from our studios in New York.

Kerry Kennedy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KENNEDY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, hip-hop performers have sat atop the music charts for decades, but could there be a day when they occupy a state house or maybe even the White House?

LESTER SPENCE: I can easily imagine somebody running for office under a hip-hop platform and connecting that platform to anti-tax policies.

MARTIN: Political science professor Lester Spence sounds off on the relationship between hip-hop and politics. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The days when an American family meant a mom, a dad and 2.5 kids are so over, especially in this tough economy. Families are expanding the circle to include grandma, grandpa, maybe even that 30 year old kid who's come back home. Our diverse panel of moms will tackle the challenges of accordion families. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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