We Will Not Fail Our Children

Archived Information

We Will Not Fail Our Children

Remarks of Secretary Duncan at the Second Annual Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit

September 21, 2011

I want to thank you for being here today. Over the past year, all of us in the Obama administration have been joining forces to address and reduce bullying. I believe we've made real progress – but I know that we have a long way to go.

In The Bullycide Project, you saw just how important this work is. These are real-life stories about students who took their own lives after being bullied. They are sobering reminders of exactly how devastating bullying can be. They're also a reminder of how the entire community suffers–parents, classmates and even the child engaged in bullying. It creates a toxic environment and barriers to learning, and in the worst cases, can even lead to the suicides of some of our children.

Last year, when my team at the Department convened this summit, little did we know that soon after, national attention would turn dramatically to this issue. Just weeks later, Tyler Clementi succumbed to the outrageous behavior of people he trusted. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of his suicide – and tragically, Tyler's death isn't the only one. Last fall, several other young people took their lives after being bullied or harassed.

A number of brave parents and relatives are here today because they too lost children, in part, because of bullying. There is no greater heartbreak. But all of them are now working to ensure that other students won't suffer the way their children did.

I want to recognize and thank some of these strong and dedicated people:

  • Wendy Walsh and her son Shawn, mother and brother of Seth Walsh, who have worked with schools to protect gay students from bullying;

  • Kevin and Tammy Eppling, parents of Matt Eppling, who have led the charge to establish community-based awareness programs and legislation to stop hazing and bullying in schools;

  • Eileen Moore, the aunt of Phoebe Prince, who created a guide book called “You Are Not Alone,” a suicide prevention resource for dealing with bullying and its victims. Eileen now leads Phoebe's Messengers, a student group with the mission to find solutions for bullying;

  • Tammy and Shawn Aaberg, parents of Justin Aaberg, who are working with their local, state, and federal representatives to create stronger and more inclusive anti-bullying policies;

  • Masika Bermudez, mother of Jaheem Herrera, who speaks out against harassment and advocates for laws to stop bullying;

  • Tricia Behnke, mother of Paige Behnke, who is working to get the message out that suicide is not the answer; and

  • Kevin Jacobsen, father of Kameron. He and his wife, Wanda, founded a charitable foundation called Kindness Above Malice (KAM) that is a call for action to all of us to help prevent even one more child and indeed one more family from having to endure the horrific nightmare of teen suicide by bringing awareness and positive solutions to our communities.

I want to thank all of you for your remarkable courage. All of you are leaders who are using your advocacy to prevent bullying. You are working to make schools safe for all children. You are actively working to prevent bullying and to enforce the message that “Enough is enough. It's time to stop the bullying.”

Children are bullied for many different reasons –for their race or national origin, for having a disability, actual or perceived sexual orientation, for how they look, or who they date or are friends with, for how they perform in school or on the athletic field, or for how they speak. This bullying is something no child should have to face.

Recent research confirms that bullying affects all students whether in high school or elementary school – even those who only witness it. A recent University of Virginia study linked bullying in high school to lower academic achievement across the school. Schools with high levels of reported bullying had lower passing rates – by an average of 3 to 6 percent across tests — when compared to schools with less reported bullying. Related research tells more of the story: Jaana Junoven and her colleagues at UCLA in a study of middle schools academic performance found that, over time, bullying can account for a decline of one–and–a–half letter grades in academic subjects. Another study found that students who are chronically rejected and mistreated by peers in elementary school are more likely to perform poorly in academics, and to ultimately avoid school altogether. Ian Rivers' research on students' mental health shows that students who witness bullying are more likely to use tobacco or alcohol, to be depressed, and to miss or skip school.

If you ask kids about bullying, they'll all tell you it's not just at school. Kids can now bully their classmates through e–mail and text messages, on social networking sites, and across the Internet.

But there is some encouraging news. Through our collective efforts we are starting to make a difference, and we are starting to reduce harassment and make schools and the Internet into better, safer places for students to learn. That is our duty: We cannot fail any more of our children.

Last year, my team at the Department convened this summit to help inform the way forward, shed light on this touchy subject and broaden our impact. We brought together eight federal partners who made a promise to do something to change things for the better. You can read about our work at www.stopbullying.gov, which has received almost half a million visits. I want to commend all of our partners for their efforts in the past year. There has been an unprecedented commitment by both the private and public sectors to understand and address bullying. Campaigns have helped students learn to talk to adults about their problems, encouraged parents to support their children and monitor what they are doing online, and taught kids that bullying is flat out wrong.

At the federal government, we've made progress in developing a uniform definition of bullying and analyzing the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of state anti-bullying laws. Last October, we sent a Dear Colleague letter to school administrators, explaining that they have a legal duty under the federal civil rights laws to prevent discriminatory harassment; and we provided a series of practical examples to help them understand how to address harassment when it does occur. In December, I sent a memo to all Governors and Chief State School Officers outlining the key components of state anti-bullying laws.

This memo serves as a reference to states and districts as they develop or revise anti-bullying legislation and policies. We will continue to work with state and local policymakers and educators to keep children safe, and to provide them with the best learning environment. In June, I issued a Dear Colleague letter reaffirming the rights of students to form Gay-Straight Alliances and other non-curricular clubs under the Equal Access Act. These student groups can and do make schools tolerant and inclusive places, and ensure that all students have the support they need.

We have also focused on vigorously enforcing existing federal laws that speak to this issue. As you heard from our Assistant Secretary Ali, we have greatly stepped up enforcement of civil rights laws through our Office for Civil Rights.

We are also committed to providing technical assistance on a variety of related topics. We partnered with the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to host a number of webinars that have reached a nationwide audience, explaining topics like when bullying constitutes discriminatory harassment and how to constructively intervene in bullying situations. Our Safe and Supportive Technical Assistance Center developed training modules specifically for bus drivers after we saw survey results showing that they don't feel prepared to handle bullying on their buses.

Working with the White House, we convened another conference in March. There, the private sector rallied to respond. I want to specifically commend MTV. After the March 10th White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, MTV partnered with researchers from the MIT Media Lab. They're working on vanguard approaches to detect and deter cyber bullying. The centerpiece of the partnership is “Over the Line?” a Web and iPhone app where young people share and rate personal stories of how technology is complicating social interactions.

More than 9,000 young people have submitted stories about being bullied or harassed and over three hundred thousand have responded to those stories,– creating one of the largest bodies of knowledge on youth digital ethics. Today MTV and MIT announced that the wider research community is invited to learn from this data and gain a deeper understanding of the digital behaviors that youth feel cross the line from innocent to inappropriate. We are hopeful this will help fuel innovation in the realm of cyber bullying prevention.

We have absolutely seen a significant commitment from the federal government and leadership from the private sector. I'm happy to report that there's also significant work and progress in states and districts.

In New Jersey, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights that took effect September 1 will send a strong message that puts the state, school officials and law enforcement on the side of victims.

Connecticut, for example, recently passed legislation that provides additional guidance on preventing and intervening in bullying and cyber bullying.

In Hawaii, a new state law requires monitoring of schools' compliance with anti-bullying policies.

In Texas, a recent law will expand the definition of bullying to include cyber bullying and to require schools to have policies for reporting and investigating bullying incidents.

And Georgia has recently updated its model bullying policy to make clear that districts are required to report bullying incident data to the state.

There is ongoing work in Florida and North Carolina to update and more clearly define the characteristics of bullying.

In Massachusetts, there are initiatives to provide training for teachers and school personnel 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.

And finally, today Michigan is announcing a crack down on cyber bullying.

States and our partner agencies are moving forward on a number of fronts, but we all know our work is far from over. As I said a year ago, and as I promise you again today, we remain committed to continuing to provide the guidance and technical assistance to address bullying. It is an educational priority that goes to the heart of student learning and school culture. It is an issue of school safety. We at the Department of Education and our federal partners are not going to fail any more children. We are in this for the long haul.

Truly addressing bullying requires a systematic paradigm shift, so we must find ways to open up lines of communication and change the cultures in our schools so students feel accepted and supported in asserting their own identities.

I want to close by telling you about the hundreds of letters that the President and I have received from parents and students desperately looking for answers. One young girl from Athens, Texas, told me, “I'm being bullied in school and on the bus. I am afraid of telling somebody because they might hear about it and do something bad to me. I don't really like telling on somebody …I've told the principals but they didn't do anything about it. I've considered suicide, but that won't help anything…that'll only hurt my family. Please give me advice on what to do, steps to make them stop!”

And a mother in Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania writes “I am going through the problem of bullying with my fifteen year old daughter who is being bullied almost every day. She used to be a straight A student and love school. Now she hates it, and she doesn't want to go and is barely making honors. I have enrolled her in counseling hoping to save her from herself. …I cry almost every day knowing this is happening to my child and I am helpless. There is nothing I can do to make the pain go away. We try, the school tries, but these children do not seem to understand. …I fear for my daughter, mostly I fear for her from herself.” I fear for her from herself.

I have to tell you as a parent and father of two young children –these letters break my heart. But I promise you I will not look the other way when students fear for their safety at school, worry about being bullied, or suffer discrimination and taunts because of their race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or any other reasons.

And I know President Obama will not allow this on his watch either. As he says, “We must dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage. We have begun to do so, but we cannot become passive and believe we have won this fight until no student feels like they cannot attend school because of the bullying they face.”

But none of us can confront this or stop this alone. Nor should we. When we stand together we can address bullying and fight the hatred, bigotry and fear that divide us. Our children deserve no less. And when we do support them, we give them the opportunity to fulfill their true academic and social potential. Thank you for your courage, thank you for your commitment, and most importantly, thank you for the difference you are making in the lives of children. I am proud to be your partner in this effort.