The Myths About Bullying: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Bullying Prevention Summit

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The Myths About Bullying: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Bullying Prevention Summit

August 11, 2010

Thank you, Kevin, for that generous introduction.

This is an important day in so many respects. It is the very first federal summit on bullying. We have an extraordinary range of NGOs, corporate leaders, state and local officials on hand, as well as the members of the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Working Group.

This summit culminates months of unprecedented collaboration and hard work across federal agencies.

We have not only joined forces but, more important, we are committed to using this summit to launch a sustained commitment to address and reduce bullying.

For all the promise of this summit, it is incumbent on everyone in this room and every educator and school leader to ask: What can we do to sustain that commitment to reduce bullying? To answer that question, we should start with another leading question that this summit itself raises. And that is: Why have these agencies not come together for a federal summit on bullying before today?

The answers to that basic question are many. But they start, and end, with the fact that the problem of bullying has been shrouded in myth and misunderstanding for far too many years. As educators, as state and local officials--and yes, absolutely at the federal level--we simply have not taken the problem of bullying seriously enough. Too often, bullying gets shrugged off.

You have heard all the excuses. You have heard the lineup of reasons to minimize the gravity of bullying and to dismiss the potential of effective programs to reduce it. "What can you do," people say, "bullying has been going on forever. Kids are mean." Or "she just made a bad joke." "He didn't mean to hurt anyone." "It was just a one-time thing." "Bullying may be wrong. But it really isn't an educational issue." At the heart of this minimization of bullying, is a core belief that bullying is an elusive concept that can't really be defined.

Every one of those myths and excuses I've just cited is flat-out wrong. Bullying is definable. It has a common definition, and a legal definition in many states. Good prevention programs work to reduce bullying. And bullying is very much an education priority that goes to the heart of school performance and school culture.

The truth is that bullying is ultimately an issue of school safety. Kevin Jennings often talks about the fact that school safety is a much broader issue than the shootings and gang violence that make the evening news.

Bullying is part of that continuum of school safety. It is troubling in and of itself. But bullying is doubly dangerous because if left unattended it can rapidly escalate into even more serious violence and abuse. Just as you have gateway drugs, bullying is gateway behavior. Too often it is the first step down the road to one of the tragic incidents of school violence we all have watched in horror on the evening news.

As the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools for seven years, I dealt every day with the issue of school safety--and it's a subject that I am passionate about. We are simply not doing nearly enough as a nation, or as school leaders, to keep children safe. Keeping my students safe, not just in school, but in their communities, was by far my toughest challenge. Our inability as adults to secure the safety of innocent children was a failure that haunts me every day.

For the record, let me state my basic, operating premise, both in Chicago and Washington DC: No student should feel unsafe in school. Take that as your starting point, and then it becomes inescapable that school safety is both a moral issue, and a practical one.

The moral issue is plain. Every child is entitled to feel safe in the classroom, in the hallways of school, and on the playground. Children go to school to learn, and educational opportunity must be the great equalizer in America. No matter what your race, sex, or zip code, every child is entitled to a quality education and no child can get a quality education if they don't first feel safe at school.

It is an absolute travesty of our educational system when students fear for their safety at school, worry about being bullied, or suffer discrimination and taunts because of their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or a host of other reasons.

The job of teachers and principals is to help students learn and grow—and they can't do that job in schools where safety is not assured.

The practical import of school safety is just as plain as the moral side of the equation. A school where children don't feel safe is a school where children struggle to learn. It is a school where kids drop out, tune out, and get depressed. Not just violence but bullying, verbal harassment, substance abuse, cyber-bullying, and disruptive classrooms all interfere with a student's ability to learn.

I have to tell you—I have very little patience for the arguments that "kids will be kids" and there is not much that schools can do to make schools much safer. I hate the excuses, and I hate the passivity.

I know that effective prevention programs have the power to dramatically improve school environment and school safety. The default position of schools, parents, and communities should be that school violence, bullying, and harassment are completely unacceptable.

The fact is that no school can be a great school until it is a safe school first. A positive school climate is foundational to start academic achievement. That is one reason why in Chicago we established school safety as a metric on our report cards for every school, just as we did with academic metrics like measuring the number of students who exceeded state standards in reading and math.

What does a safe school look like? As all of you know, it is obvious from the minute you walk in the door. A safe school is one where students feel like they belong. The students feel secure, valued, and are surrounded by adults that they trust.

Safe schools also cultivate a culture of respect and caring--and have little tolerance for disruptiveness. At a safe school, students don't curse or threaten teachers. They don't spend most of their class time texting other students or tune out on their iPods. Students don't roam the hallways.

At safe schools, teachers are primarily engaged in helping students learn and grow—and students, empowered by feeling safe, are more likely to feel free to explore, and even fail as they learn. At safe schools, all the building's staff pitches in to create a culture of respect—from the teachers and principals to the receptionists, lunch room attendants and custodial staff.

Now, I've just talked about what a safe school feels like. But I have to tell you that I have been in many schools that don't feel safe. And this is a tragedy we can avoid.

This isn't just a big-city problem. Bullying is epidemic in urban, suburban, and rural schools. The statistics are frankly staggering. In 2007, nearly one out of three students in middle school and high school reported that they had been bullied at school during the school year. That means that 8.2 million students a year are suffering at the hands of bullies in school.

The most common form of bullying is being made fun of or being the subject of mean-spirited rumors. But more violent forms of bullying are common, too.

One out of nine secondary school students, or 2.8 million students, said they have been pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on during the last school year.

Another one-and-a-half million students said they were threatened with harm, and one million students reported they had their property destroyed during the school year.

Cyber-bullying, as you know, is a new and especially insidious form of bullying. In 2007, more than 900,000 secondary students reported being cyber-bullied. Cyber-bullying allows bullies to do their work at a distance, outside of schools, in front of a broad audience and sometimes under the protection of anonymity. New technologies provide bullies with new tools to hurt students in old ways.

We have all been told that bullying has been going on in schools forever.

But the truth is that it doesn't have to keep going on forever. Bullying is not something that school leaders, teachers, or parents can shrug off. Children are never born as bullies—it is a learned behavior. And if they are learning to bully from their peers, or parents, they can learn to behave differently, too.

Bullying is not the occasional bad joke or the child who gets a bit too aggressive.

Bullying is deliberate. The bully wants to hurt someone. Bullying is usually repeated, with the bully targeting the same victim again and again--and the bully takes advantage of an imbalance of power by picking victims that he or she perceives are vulnerable.

Bullying can occur through physical, verbal, or relational means where bullies try to destroy their victims' relationships through vicious rumors and social exclusion.

Bullying, in other words, is not just a "boy" behavior or a "mean girl" behavior. It is a problem that often has an impact on children who are neither bully nor victims.

It often occurs in groups. It shapes the way that everyone—bullies, victims, and bystanders alike—view a school's environment.

Ultimately, bullying is really a form of physical and mental abuse. If you don't stop it when it starts, it usually spreads.

A powerful testament to the fact that bullying is not part of the natural order of things is that most people can remember, even decades later, the feeling of being bullied or bullying another individual. Or they may feel haunted by the memory of standing by while a friend or classmate was bullied.

The fact that those memories are seared into our brains suggests that bullying leaves long-lasting scars on children.

Why does bullying have such long-lasting effects? Why are the victims of bullying more likely to drop out of school and get depressed? Because bullying is insidious—it tends to get enveloped in a code of silence and shame. It is underreported because children are embarrassed or don't recognize behavior as bullying. Maybe they fear retaliation, don't have an adult they trust to talk to about what is going on, or they think nothing can be done to stop the bullying.

The situation is much the same with cyber-bullying and "sext-ing." Adolescents suffer from what you might call the Las Vegas syndrome—they feel that what happens online stays online.

Now, one of the antidotes to this culture of silence is sunshine—teachers, parents, and the peers of students should be encouraged to expose and confront bullying behavior. We want children to learn to be assertive and stand up for themselves. But we do not want to encourage them to respond to bullying with violence and force themselves.

Instead, schools should be cultivating a culture of trust and accountability. A culture of trust empowers students to tell teachers and other adults when bullying is occurring. It teaches students that should have a sense of responsibility for the well-being of other students. In schools that just say no to bullying, students who report other students are not tattle-tales, but acting responsibly, keeping students safe, and holding bullies accountable for their mistreatment.

When 11-year old Ziainey Stokes got tired of being bullied, she wrote President Obama a letter. And the president wrote her back that her letter "demonstrates a desire to change the culture of your classroom as well as your community." I believe Ziainey is here today. And I'd ask you all to give her a round of applause.

Schools, in short, can have an enormous impact in reducing bullying. Ideally, all schools should have a code of conduct that sends a message to the students, staff, and community that it has high expectations for them and little tolerance for cruelty and disrespect.

But a code of conduct can't just be punitive. Schools must teach and reward positive behavior as well.

Part of setting clear expectations is being consistent. Principals, teachers, and parents send messages to children about how they should behave all the time, even when they are unaware of it. All the hallmarks of great schools--student support, a sense of connection to caring adults, clarity of mission, inclusiveness, parental involvement—are also the hallmarks of safe schools.

Now I want to switch gears for a moment, to talk about a related school safety concern, the problem of disruptive and disorderly classrooms. For many parents and teachers, disruptive and disorderly schools are a serious problem because so little learning can take place in classrooms that are in a state of perpetual chaos.

The department's latest survey data indicate one in three teachers nationwide think that student misbehavior interferes with their teaching--and roughly the same proportion of teachers think tardiness and class cutting is impeding learning in their classrooms.

Interestingly, students themselves think disruptive classrooms are an even bigger problem. In one recent national survey of 10,000 tenth graders in more than 650 high schools, three fourths of tenth graders said that other students often disrupted their classes.

In urban schools, the problem is ever worse. Twelve percent of secondary school teachers—nearly one of every eight instructors—reports that they were threatened with physical injury the previous year by a school student. Five percent of urban teachers say they were actually attacked by a student the previous year.

It is absolutely inexcusable that so many teachers are attacked, threatened, or face persistently chaotic classrooms. And just as you can usually tell a safe school when you walk in the door, you can tell an unsafe one, too. Just as good practice echoes through a school, so does bad practice.

The famous broken windows theory suggests that the root problem in schools is not so much shootings on the playground but the message that disorder and disruption sends to the students—it's the broken window that goes unfixed that signals to students no one is really in control here and taking care of things.

That's just one more reason schools and districts need to do a better job of setting clear expectations, minimizing classroom disruption, and disciplining students who prevent other students from learning.

School leadership matters tremendously in school safety. That encouraging fact-- that what we do in schools matters--is still true even when violence occurs away from school. Does anyone here know the most dangerous hour of the day for adolescents in the United States, the time when violent teen crime peaks? It is 3:00 p.m., not midnight.

That is one reason why I so strongly support an extended school day. Keeping kids off the street and having them do something productive, either at school or with community-based organizations, is critical to adolescent safety. It doesn't have to be expensive. Community organizations have an important role to play—to work with schools to provide students with more opportunities. You don't have to have teachers staying to all hours at the school.

What we did in Chicago was open schools to great providers to run after-school programs. We brought in the Boys Club and the Girls Club, after-school tutoring programs, the YMCA, college-readiness programs, counseling initiatives, adult education providers, and other non-profits and community-based organizations.

We made the schools centers of the community where adolescents could continue to participate after the school day was over. To steal a phrase from Robert DeNiro, it's all about creating a circle of trust. And if you build it they will come. Teens are looking for structure and positive activities to engage in.

I encourage you to take away three messages when you leave here today.

First, our department has a renewed commitment to enforcing the law, including civil rights law that applies to racial, sexual, or disability harassment.

Second, we are committed to collecting better data to document the contours of bullying more fully, and to formulate solutions.

And finally, we will be providing more dollars to places with the biggest problems.

Outside of this room, I am not sure that many educators and parents realize that bullying can constitute racial, sexual, or disability harassment prohibited by the civil rights laws enforced by our department's Office for Civil Rights.

OCR will be issuing policy guidance to schools explaining the relationship between bullying and discriminatory harassment, and it will be outlining schools' civil rights responsibilities to protect students from discriminatory harassment. As part of the enhanced civil rights data collection that OCR has instituted, we will also be gathering new and better data on harassment.

We understand that stopping the plague of bullying will take time. It takes sustained commitment. It takes resources. And, I promise you, we are in this fight for the long haul.

The department has stepped up its support for HHS's Stop Bullying Now campaign, managed by Captain Stephanie Bryn, helping fund the expansion of the campaign to include a focus on elementary school children.

Bullying starts young--and we need to reach students when they are young with the message that bullying is not OK. Within our department, we're backing that stepped-up commitment with increased resources.

Both our budget and our blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act calls for a 12 percent increase in funding for programs that ensure students feel safe, healthy, and supported in school.

The Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students program in our Blueprint will enable states and districts to measure school safety, including bullying, at the building level. It will provide federal funds for interventions in those schools with the greatest needs.

And just as important, we will be getting information about school safety not just from incident data but also from surveying the real experts on school climate--our students themselves. For the first time, students will be given a formal role in shaping our efforts to make schools safer. Even before reauthorization, we're piloting this program through our new Safe and Supportive School program. Historically, why have we been so reluctant to ask students how they felt about their schools.

As important as all of these steps are, the department cannot do this alone. We have gathered so many partners here today because it will take sustained commitment and resources from all of us to meet this challenge.

The Department of Education stands ready to assume a role of leadership. But we need your help. This challenge requires all the assets of the federal government. I am so pleased to have so many partner agencies here today, and to have great leaders such as Surgeon General Benjamin and Associate Attorney General Perrelli speaking later in the program.

Preventing bullying will take leadership from state and local authorities, like the officials you will hear tomorrow from the state of Iowa and the district of Sullivan County, Tennessee. The Sullivan County school system is a beautiful illustration of how a district used a school climate survey to empower students by giving them a voice, formulate solutions, and help develop buy-in from all members of the community for reform. Not surprisingly, academic achievement is up in Sullivan County and disciplinary issues are down.

To keep making progress in the battle to reduce bullying, we need the support and involvement of corporate, civic, and nonprofit leadership. And this will take action by individual students, teachers, school staff, parents, and concerned citizens. We all have to play a part.

Let me close by saying that as part of your leadership, we need your ideas. This summit seeks to collect the most knowledgeable experts on the issue of bullying in America in one place, at one time, to get the best thinking about what needs to be done to bring this plague to an end.

We will never have all the answers in the U.S. Department of Education. But I believe that, with the collective knowledge and wisdom of those assembled here today, we can identify, and highlight, the most effective solutions.

I ask you to be daring, to think imaginatively, to challenge us and yourselves, and to listen carefully over the next day and a half. To break the cycle of bullying, we must be bold. The status quo cannot stand. With your courage, with your imagination, with your leadership, let this summit be a turning point where America finally tackles the problem of bullying with tenacity--and leaves the myths of bullying behind, once and for all.

Thank you.