Enough Is Enough: Secretary Duncan's Remarks at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention

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Enough Is Enough: Secretary Duncan's Remarks at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention

March 10, 2011

Back in August, the U.S. Department of Education and several other agencies convened the first-ever federally sponsored conference on bullying.

That day demonstrated a new commitment to do the hard work to fight bullying across federal agencies.

It included an extraordinary range of NGOs, corporate leaders, and state and local leaders. Many of you here today were in the room then.

I thank you for your ongoing work and commitment, but all of you know how far we have to go.

Just a few weeks after that initial summit, our nation witnessed the tragic impact that bullying can have on individual lives.

Over the course of one month, five young people took their lives after being bullied or harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

It was a moment that reminded all of us that we need to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms.

Whenever students are harassing or bullying another student, it's time for adults and children to step up and shout out: This must stop.

At the August summit, we challenged ourselves to sustain a commitment to reduce bullying.

I am convinced that we are moving toward a day when students will be safe from taunts, teasing, and physical violence in our schools.

This work won't be easy. This requires a fundamental cultural shift in our schools.

I've heard all the excuses and reasons that minimize the gravity of bullying.

People say: "What can you do, bullying has been going on forever. Kids are mean." "She just made a bad joke." "He didn't mean to hurt anyone."

Or, worse yet, "Bullying is part of growing up. Everyone experiences it and grows stronger because of it."

But as President Obama says, bullying isn't a normal rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. We all have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our children.

When we tolerate a culture that allows children to bully and harass each other because of race, color, national origin, gender stereotyping, or disability, we are failing to live up to principles of fairness and equity that are deeply rooted in our Constitution.

Students should not be threatened physically, isolated socially, or hurt emotionally based on their skin color, their ethnicity, any physical or mental disabilities, their sex, their sexual orientation, their gender identity, religion or any other reason.

Through our collective efforts, we're going to be able to reduce this harassment and make schools a better place for students to learn.

I start with a simple premise that no school can be a great school until it is a safe school. My wife and I have two young children. We want them to learn every day in school, but to do that, they must feel safe first. You cannot do your best or concentrate academically if you are scared.

Bullying is a moral and educational issue. It goes to the heart of school performance and the ability of a student to learn.

We have a comprehensive guidance to support schools as they set policies that will protect students.

In 2010, the Department invested $38 million in a new grant program called "Safe and Supportive Schools."

This program surveys students, their families, and their teachers to find the schools that face the biggest safety challenges.

Based on this data, we'll be able to direct federal funds to support the schools that need the most help. Eleven states are piloting the program this year, and we hope to fund an additional 8-10 more in the coming year.

Beyond this funding, we're supporting states and districts in their work to set clear policies that empower educators to take action.

In October, our Office for Civil Rights under the leadership of Russlynn Ali sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to every school, college and university clarifying how federal law protects students from harassment and bullying. This is absolutely a preK-16 issue, not just preK-12.

The letter explained that every school is obligated to address student-on-student bullying based on students' race, color, national origin, sex, or disability.

It clarified that while federal civil rights laws enforced by the Department do not explicitly prohibit harassment based on religion or sexual orientation, those laws do protect them from bullying they're subjected to based on sex stereotyping and based on perceptions of that members of certain religious groups share ethnic characteristics.

The civil rights office is ready to investigate when harassment crosses the line into violating a person's civil rights and help schools and universities develop robust remedies to change the cultures of their campuses.

We're also committed to helping states and districts design and implement effective policies to prevent bullying, protect victims, and hold those who bully accountable.

Strong anti-bullying laws and policies send a message that harassing behaviors will not be tolerated.

In December, I sent a memo to every chief state school officer outlining states' policies to address bullying.

Florida, for example, provides a detailed and specific definition of conduct that is considered bullying.

In Massachusetts, state policy includes a provision to provide training to teachers and other school employees to prevent, identify, and respond to bullying.

In North Carolina, a clear and comprehensive list of enumerated characteristics means that all cases of bullying will be addressed.

Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester from Massachusetts and Superintendent of Education June Atkinson from North Carolina are here today. I would like to thank them for their leadership.

I hope our memo will serve as a reference to states and districts as they develop or revise anti-bullying legislation and policies.

By highlighting these best practices, we will help state and local policymakers and educators work to keep children safe and provide the best learning environment for all students.

From the federal government, we can provide guidelines for local officials to follow and enforcement of federal civil rights laws.

We can also provide support, which is why today I am happy to announce the Department of Education's intention to establish a new technical assistance center dedicated to bullying prevention.

The Department of Education and our other Federal partners are not working alone. Organizations across the country are engaging the public.

As you heard today, organizations representing all levels of the education sector have made commitments to addressing bullying.

The National Education Association is leading an online campaign to find caring adults in every school who will be there to support those who have been harassed.

The American Federation of Teachers will be providing resources and assistance to its members in its anti-bullying campaign.

And the National Association of Student Councils is organizing some 33,000 student groups to create student-led conversations and action plans to put an end to harassment. I believe student leadership in this area is particularly powerful and has been an undervalued resource to this point.

Real student engagement makes me more hopeful than ever before that we can break through on this issue.

Earlier today, the President shared the inspiring stories of Brandon Greene and Sarah and Emily Buder.

These dedicated and compassionate young people are making a difference by organizing groups in their schools and starting letter writing campaigns.

They understand that the myths about bullying don't hold up.

They know that the teasing, the pestering, and the jokes at someone else's expense aren't fun-and-games. That is abuse. It is unfair, and must be stopped.

With their leadership, I believe we are moving in the right direction. We still have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but by working together we can significantly reduce bullying in our schools.

I am confident that we will continue to make progress as every one of us leaves this conference today with a renewed commitment to go home and say: "Enough is enough. It's time to stop the bullies."