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“The Fight to Stop Bullying”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Remarks to the Anti-Defamation League
National Leadership Conference
April 6, 2011, Washington, D.C.

It is an honor to be here today with so many people who are working to rid our country of bigotry. The Anti-Defamation League fights so hard to protect the civil rights of all Americans.

The ADL work against bullying is particularly important to our effort to improve our nation’s schools. I want to thank you for your commitment and encourage you to redouble your efforts.

President Obama is leading a coordinated effort to address the problem of bullying in American schools.

He starts with the premise the bullying isn’t a normal rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. He recognizes that bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people.

Last fall, 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. The deaths reminded all of us that we need to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms.

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

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 for any other reason.

President Obama believes the federal government has an important role to play in preventing bullying.
From Washington, we have several distinct roles to play. We’re raising awareness to the problem, funding model programs, and we are getting directly involved when bullying crosses the line and becomes discriminatory harassment that is a violation of federal civil rights laws.

But the President understands the real work of preventing bullying happens at the local level, in the schools and playgrounds, on the streets and in the community centers across America.

Through the collective efforts in our schools and communities, we’re going to be able to reduce this harassment and make schools a better place for students to learn and our young people to grow up.

For more than 25 years, ADL has been working in community-based partnerships to combat prejudice, and promote democratic ideals through the World of Difference campaign. The campaign has helped transform schools and college campuses and has worked to improve the workplace, youth service organizations, and youth programs.

ADL also has been a leader in recognizing that the Internet gives bullies a whole new venue where they can harass their victims and has created a comprehensive program to curtail it.

I am here to promise you that the federal government will partner with you, school districts, and other community-based groups to dramatically reduce bullying.

President Obama and his team are using all of these tools in our effort to reduce bullying and make our children free from harassment as fast as we can.

Just last month, President Obama put the national spotlight on this issue when he held the first-ever White House summit on bullying. At that event, he highlighted the courageous work of young people throughout the country.

He called on parents, teachers, and students to take steps to prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe.

He also recognized the work of many adults and children to eradicate bullying. He told the story of Sarah and Emily Buder from California.

These sisters read a newspaper story about a young girl named Olivia from a nearby town. Olivia faced cruel taunting in school and online because she had an epileptic seizure in class. Sarah and Emily decided to organize a campaign to write letters of support for the girl.

They thought they’d organize 50 letters from their friends. But within a month, thousands and thousands of people had written to support Olivia.

Many of those letters came from young people, telling her she was not alone and that they were thinking about her.

He also told the story of Brandon Greene from Rhode Island. Two years ago as a 6th grader, Brandon did a class project on bullying. Now, he’s leading a schoolwide organization with 80 members.

They’ve done monthly surveys to track bullying, and they’ve realized that stopping bullying is about working together to create a positive atmosphere just as much as it is about preventing bad behavior.

Now Brandon and his committee members are leading a coat drives and community service activities at their school.

After hearing stories like these, we left the summit with the sense of hope that America’s young people will lead this effort to reduce bullying.

But adults are doing their part as well. MTV is leading a new coalition to fight online bullying, and launching a series of ads to talk about the damage that is done when children are bullied.

The National Education Association is leading an online campaign to find caring adults in every school to support 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.

At the White House conference, the federal government launched, which provides a series of best practices for children, parents, educators, and community leaders and directs them to resources to accomplish our mutual goal of ridding schools and communities of bullying behavior.

The federal government is prepared to support the work of adults and children who are leading anti-bullying efforts in their local schools and communities.

And I’m proud to say that the U.S. Department of Education is actively involved in this effort. Working in partnership with five other Cabinet agencies, we are creating a comprehensive and coordinated strategy to address bullying and harassment.

We organized the event to create a unified federal effort around two specific principles.

First we need to create programs that dispel the myths of bullying. We’ve all heard 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.”

Our second principle is 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.

Based on these principles, the Department is creating a set of programs to support schools that are leading the effort to eradicate bullying.

In 2010, the Department invested $38 million [dollars] in a new grant program called “Safe and Supportive Schools.”

The 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 to 10 in the coming year.

In addition to this preliminary investment, the President’s proposal to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes the Successful, Safe and Healthy Students program.

This program supports best practices in creating school environments where students can focus on learning, and teachers can focus on teaching.

With $365 million available under the President’s fiscal 2012 budget, we’ll be able to fund model programs that improve school climates by reducing bullying, harassment, violence, and drug and alcohol use.

We’ll also be supporting programs that offer comprehensive services often integral to success of anti-bullying work –such as counseling and social services.

In addition to funding model programs, the Department of Education sent guidance to state officials giving examples that illustrate how some states have tried to prevent and reduce bullying through legislation.

We're also committed to helping states and districts design and implement effective policies to prevent bullying, protect victims, and hold bullies accountable.
Strong anti-bullying laws and policies send a message that harassing behaviors will not be tolerated.

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

Our third role is to protect the civil rights of students.

At the Department, we’ve reinvigorated our enforcement of federal civil rights laws and we’re making it clear that the facts surrounding bullying can trigger enforcement actions under federal civil rights laws.

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 when the harassment is based on perceptions that members of certain religious groups share ethnic characteristics.

For example, bullying members of religious groups sometimes takes the form of harassment based on shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics both real and perceived which amounts to prohibited harassment on the basis of race or national origin.

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 sharing model state 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.

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 keep children safe and provide the best learning environment for all students.

No one should ever feel harassed or unsafe in a school simply because they act or think or dress differently than others.

The federal government recognizes it has a responsibility to prevent bullying.

But to make progress, we need the support and involvement of corporate and civic leaders and the continued support of the Anti-Defamation Leagues and other groups committed to this effort. This will take action by individual citizens, students, teachers, and parents. We all have to play a part.

Bullying is an issue that is too often dismissed as the harmless side effect of growing up -- where playground pecking orders get worked out with a minimum of physical or psychological trauma.  And in most cases, that's what happens.

But in recent years, we have come to see the devastating outcomes that unbridled bullying can cause: academic failure, depression, and in some tragic and extreme cases, suicide."

Just as we recognize that permissiveness around sexual harassment can lead to sexual violence or indifference to racial stereotyping can lead to discrimination, we now know that when school personnel fail to take bullying seriously -- it can cause real and lasting physical and emotional damage to young people.

And in the age of the internet, where a thoughtless or callous message is widely disseminated with the click of a mouse, the problem is amplified even more."

We will never have all the answers in the U.S. Department of Education. But with the collective commitment and passion of groups such as ADL, we can find the most effective solutions.

I ask you to be daring, to think imaginatively, to challenge yourselves. To break the cycle of bullying, we must be bold. With your courage, imagination, and leadership, America finally will tackle the problem of bullying with tenacity.

Thank you.


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Related Press Release

Bullying in America, Civil Rights in the 21st Century and the Changing Face of the Mideast Top Agenda at ADL Conference (4/13/11)

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